Azizi Life Experience

After spending a day with the women in their villages, we truly felt as though we were a part of the family and cooperative at Azizi.

When we got off the bus at the first of two houses in the village, the women were overjoyed to greet us and we all hugged and shook hands, which is custom to Rwandans. Next, the women began to sing and dance and form a circle so we joined them! It was so fun and of course, heart warming. In return, we performed our play for them. My favorite woman who I didn't know the name of, but I will refer to as the Woman in Blue, jumped into our play during the Mwaramutze scene! She was a blast all day long!! Such a cheerful leader. We then split into two villages.

Once we split into our two villages, we went to the house of our respective village and took seats. We began by praying and sharing brief introductions of ourselves with the help of our translator Renee. Then, the women put fabric head wraps and skirts on us. I hope to buy some fabric at home to make a skirt like that to wear when its nice out!

Next, we sat between the house and wood stove building and peeled their version of a sweet potato with a knife, chopped dodo - which is a leafy green, and added the two into the boiling water. We had an hour to wait for that all to cook down along with the beans and scallions in the pot. While we waited, we grabbed hoes and learned how to cultivate the soil and remove weeds. Next, we went to cut some grass for the cows to eat. We used something similar to a mini sickle to cut the super long pointy grass at the base and made piles of it. Then, we used banana leaves to make little head cushions/halos to carry out bundles of tied up grass on. It was so cool to walk to the cows with the grass on our heads. We fed the cows and I loved them! I actually learned a lot about them while we ate. Then we grabbed empty jugs and walked all the way down to the water to fetch some. We saw boys on the shallow water fishing and one boy caught a fish. It was really sad at the time because we kept it out of the water for like 20 30 minutes, but then Crystal finally let it go back thank god and he lived. 

It was super hot and humid at this point. Then we made the uphill trek which seemed like FOREVER because we were all very hungry and it was so hot. We washed up and prepared to eat. 

The food was inside of 2 huge circular but sort of flat, like a deep plate, baskets that were the circumference of a huge hot water tank. In between the food and the basket were banana leaves. Before eating, they asked if anyone wanted to say grace, which I did! I love doing that and I should do it more when I'm home. This trip has officially reunited me with my faith and I'm so grateful for that. We had huge avocado halves and ate with our hands. It was so good!! Very filling too. After eating and washing up again, we went back to the first house to reunite with the other group to do some weaving. 

We were all too sleepy so the women decided to have us dance to wake us up. It didn't sound like it would work, but boy did it! We had a dance off. We all said the word for 'move', which sounded like 'inneega', and the word for 'shake it!' which I have forgotten. We repeated these words as we moved in circles. I was selected to win!!! Then the women enacted an award show which was hilarious. The Woman in Blue was on bended knee, using her elbow as a video camera and her other hand as the lens zoom. Others held up water bottles as microphones. We were given 'gold medallions' which were woven medallions made of dried banana leaves on curling ribbon as awards. The levels of innovation and creativity were remarkable amongst these women. 

Now we were ready to weave! We were short on time so we all made bracelets out of banana leaves. This was so cool. Then, we could sense the rain coming. We played soccer and hand games and danced with the kids. This was the best part of my day. When it was time to go, it was really pouring. As we were closing out and saying goodbye, one of our hosts told us that in Rwanda when it rains when you're having guests over, it means they're blessed. My little friend Monica walked me to the bus. This was when I felt as though I wanted to cry. I wanted to stay with them forever! 

I spent the rest of my Rwandan Franks at the Azizi gift shop which financially supports the women artisans. I bought cards with banana leaf decorations on them and a pair of hand-woven earrings. 

I plan to connect this experience to my classroom someday. I want to start a partnership and promote these women and spread the word of their story. There's still help to be extended even from home, whether it's teaching my students about their developing and joyful lives, or if its promoting their goods to be purchased online. There is much to be learned about how hard these families work to survive and about how much joy they spread simultaneously.

I'll never forget this amazing experience.

TIG Camp

Hello My Band of Merri Readers,

 Sorry about the lack of posts these past couple days wifi has not corporated lately. But today's blog is about our time spent in the TIG Camp. Now for those who do not know a TIG Camp is a work prison camp for those who have confessed to committing acts of Genocide. These camps are temporary and meant for those who confessed to help rebuild the country they tried to destroy. Going to a TIG camp is all voluntary and in order to go you have to confess and go to the family's of the people you have murdered and ask for forgiveness. Also working in a TIG camp can reduce ones sentence. The men at the camp were happy to greet us, and did so with clapping and song. This experience is very strange, we are meeting with men who have committed brutal crimes and yet they smile. This was one thing that puzzled me last year. This year I was able to see their humanity.

They smile because they are now rebuilding Rwanda. The Rwandan prison is vastly different from America's because they actually try to reform prisoners back into everyday life and not make them professional prisoners. When someone confesses to committing the Rwandan government puts them through from what I understand as (being told by one of the prisoners) some sort of therapy to help get rid of the Hutu Extremists thinking. Most of these men were very young when they participated in the Genoicde, and they were taken in by propaganda (not taking away the cruelty of their crimes). 

Coming back a second time really made reflect on my forgiveness. Seeing how they truly are trying to repent and make up for their crimes made me think "how does Rwnada forgive?". I started to realize how much I hold grudges over the littlest things and here are people going to families of people they have killed asking for forgiveness and receiving it. That is something I hope to bring back to America is forgiveness. It is truly impressive the progress Rwanda has made after the Genocide.  

Another note to be said about the TIG camp is that there are not walls around the camp. It is wide open, the men working there are allowed to leave attend graduations, weddings, funerals, and other things. When asked; "Do the prisoners come back?" The man giving us the tour (I can't remember his name, but he was an official in the Prison system) responded a little thrown off; "They always come back." To him and the prisoners not coming back doesn't cross their mind. They want to rebuild their country and when their sentence is over they go back home and live their normal lives. Meaning being in prison does not follow them around on a record like it does in America, they are allowed to re-enter society.  

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When I can I will upload a video of us dancing with the prisoners before we left the camp. 

Well that's it for this post! Find out what happens next time... On the next post on CPT. SAM'S BLOG!! 

 

Yours Truly, 

 

Cpt. Samuel M. Merriman

Gihembe

Hello My Band of Merri Readers, 

**Okay, so this is my second attempt to post this blog so fingers crossed! 

Coming back to Gihembe Refugee camp was interesting. On the bus ride there I was think about last year and remembered feeling all this anxiety about what it would be like there and how everyone will be like. This year I knew how it would be like, but yet I still felt anxiety. The people in the camp have no home to go to and are only here in order to save their lives. They live in close quarters, mud houses, and are given an amount of money to buy food at their market. (The market is something new and gives the refugees the freedom of choosing their own food or way to spend their money.) 

When we arrived at the camp we were greeted by the camp manager David. He gave us a tour around the camp. one of the first things David told us was, "This is not a prison. The people are free to come and go as they please." This quote really stuck with me because this doesn't really happen in America. At this point in time America is oddly trying to shut out refugees even though our country was founded by refugees. Rwanda not only accepts refugees from the Congo and other countries from Africa but treats them as humans.  The refugees are allowed to leave the camp to go get a job and if they earn enough money they can move off the camp. Another thing to remember is once they can go home, they will. 

 

Being able to preform our play for the refugees always feels amazing because it means so much to them. It is an opportunity to remind them that they are still cared about.  I think I am finally understanding why exactly Drew keeps bringing students back to the camp. 

 

Well that's it for this post. Find out what happens next... On the next post on CPT. SAM'S BLOG!  

 

Yours Truly, 

 

Cpt. Samuel M. Merriman  

Taking A Walk In Their Shoes

Spending the day at Azizi

Spending the day at Azizi

The last few days have had a different feeling to them. I think it has to do with the fact that in a week from now we will be in America, not to say that I’m not looking forward to having Moe’s as soon as I return. But there is a fragility to our time here. Our experiences seem to have greater meaning knowing that we won't be here much longer, so I’ve tried to make the most of the experiences we have left.

The past few days we have really begun to live like a true Rwandan. Which is a huge difference from the 4-star resort we stayed at a few days before in Akagera. We spent Saturday, January 9th, in a program called “Azizi Life”. In this program, we are taken into the homes of Rwandan woman and we took a walk in their shoes for the day; from gathering water, to making lunch, hoeing the fields, dancing, and weaving. We split up into groups and we were invited into the woman’s homes where we introduced ourselves and were given traditional garments to wear. After that, we cut and prepared many different vegetables and the woman showed us how they cook their food. Then it was time to do some real work, we went into the field and began hoeing the fields to rid of any weeds. The fieldwork continued when we cut grass for the cows. Our next and hardest chore was gathering water. It was a 1-2 mile walk down a very steep hill and back up, but an incredibly necessary part of our experience. Water, a simple thing in the United States that we may take for granted. Following our water journey, we sat down and enjoyed a beautiful meal of avocados, beans, and sweet potatoes. During this lunch, we talked about the woman’s daily lives and they asked us questions about New York. The final and my favorite activity was learning about the weaving process they do to make different goods to sell. We gathered banana leafs and they cut them into strips for us and showed us how to make bracelets. Did I mention they don’t speak English? It was a very fun experience to make the bracelets. The woman that we worked with really became family. And they didn’t want us to leave. We celebrated our day with one last song, dance, and hugs. Now forever connected through a common story.

Our last Sunday was a full day of travel, to and from the Bisesero Genocide Memorial. This particular memorial is atop a distant hill where victims of the genocide took refuge and defended themselves.  For the three months of the genocide, they would go back and forth from the top of the hill to the bottom fighting and surviving. In total over 1,000 people survived on this hill, but many more perished. Our tour guide was a man that was part of this resistance. He told us stories of his time at Bisesero and even showed us the bullet wounds he had through his shoulder and arm. It was very hard to listen to his stories without getting upset and sad. But that isn't his intentions or Rwanda’s. I’ve said it before; I think the culture here is to forgive but never forget. The Rwandan people, our tour guide, really accepts what happened, forgives the perpetrators, and shares their stories to help others understand what happened. They do it in hopes that it will never happen again.

As our time in Rwanda ends, I keep reflecting on our experiences and how I want them to make me a better person, which is easier said than done. I really want this time in Rwanda to affect me as a person, I want to be more active in my own life, more caring, more kind. I’m not much of a writer in my free time, but I believe this blog will help me make sure I actually take these experiences and apply them to my life, even if I’m the only person reading them.

Back to Basics

It's overwhelming to try to put everything we've been experiencing into words. I've accepted that there's no way I could ever type out every single thing we did and still have time to be present. I would be writing the entire time. I wanted to back track a bit to focus on the little things I may have left out along the way:

Our main driver Guspar is so skilled and humble. It's enjoyable when I make small exchanges with him. It's always been important to me to make friends with bus drivers or baristas in particular. Many times, people reap the benefits of their services but never stop to say 'hey how are you today? Thank you for the ride'

The chemistry of our group is impeccable. There's never a dull moment! We all connect and can talk and joke so openly with one another which I would like to attribute as one of the factors that have been helping to keep our hearts and minds from becoming too heavy. I've laughed more than I've cried on this trip which is contrary to the assumption I had going into this trip. I'm grateful that the universe has placed all of these beautiful souls in the same place at the same time.

Francoise is so smart. I love how when Deb asked about the trees with yellow flowers, Fran knew all about why they were there. Most of us joked whole making the comparison that if someone in nyc asked a question like deb did, they might say something like 'what tree?'

I plan to return here one day. I hope to be reunited with the beaming smiling children I've made meaningful connections with. I've learned that language barriers do not limit love.

Did You Know?

Rwanda has two rain seasons: the first one is March, April, May, and the second one is October, November, December. You can see how they have implemented irrigation systems and drainage to work with the rain seasons. It's a good thing we're here during a dry season with the amount of mountains and hills we've climbed! If it weren't the dry season, I'm not sure that our safari would have been as enjoyable and manageable.

We spent the last two days adventuring around Akagera National Park. The lodge we stayed at was so beautiful! It went by so fast. We took great showers and saw one of the most beautiful sunrises ever.

Our guide, Magnifique, has been guiding for 4 years. He went to the same primary school as our GEI guide Eric. Magnifique went to university in hopes of becoming a teacher of physics and chemistry. He shared with us that although he isn't doing what he planned, he's still teaching; teaching safari-goers about Rwanda and nature in Akagera. I see a lot of myself in Magnifique for his mindset. Furthermore, even if I don't end up teaching in an institution someday, like I plan to now, I know that wherever I go & whatever I do - I'll be teaching people.

The best part of the safari at Akagera for me was whenever I was sitting on top of our 'tank' with Ashanti. Unlike the other two tanks, ours lacked a roof and Magnifique told us we were allowed to stand on the seats and sit on top if we liked. While sitting on top of the tank, the smells, sights, and fresh air were washing us over with complete bliss. I wish I wasn't so sensitive to the sun so I could have stayed up there all day on our second day!

For some of our time in the park, we were looking across either the large Lake or the Akagera river. You can see Tanzania from across these bodies of water! We asked Magnifique how poaching is prevented and he explained that it used to be a problem with Tanzanians coming into Rwanda to poach but now it's not a problem. However, it could happen in an unlikely incident.

On our first day of the safari, we saw so much wildlife! We saw zebra, giraffe, elephant, hippo, water bucks, plenty of birds, and monkeys. The sunset was amazing and from where we sat to watch the sunset, we could see our lodge up the mountain above us. It was so peaceful.

On the second day, we saw many different types of antelope, a repeat of some of what we saw yesterday, a crocodile, impala, and a female lion! There are only 7 lions in the entire park - 5 female and 2 male. We learned that 2 females are pregnant also and should be having Cubs very soon since they're only pregnant for 3 months before giving birth. It was amazing to see the female lion - she was up in a tree eating something. I don't think she was pregnant but she looked very fit. What made this so special was that this was the first lion Magnifique has ever seen in the park also! That makes me so happy.

What else makes me really happy you ask!? Well here's a story: we were briefed to understand that the national park of Akagera is under government protection and funding. The park used to be way larger than it is now, so conservation is key. I really came to understand this when we were heading to the northern exit of the park and Magnifique stopped our tank to let a little mouse run across the path. This made me so happy! I'm the same way when I'm driving, no matter how small the animal is, I have to try to keep it alive!

We also asked Magnifique if many Rwandans spend time in the park. He said that yes, they do go there, but not as much because Rwandans (with the exception of the younger generations) aren't focused on things such as traveling. That makes a lot of sense when you see how much time, work, and results have happened in terms of values such as forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.

Over all, this was such a lifetime experience for me. I'm glad we had such a kind and knowledgable guide. I learned so much and found a feeling of pure bliss that I've never felt any other way before. I'm feeling so blessed to have shared this experience with our village.

Amahoro!

~LI

Bruce and I stop our tank, coated in the red dirt! 

Bruce and I stop our tank, coated in the red dirt! 

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Thoughts from the TIGE camp

-I was less afraid than I was last year but still felt the initial nerves spring up upon seeing them. These men had killed people, who knows how many. Some were old and some looked very young. I wondered how young they had been when they joined the Interahamwe in 1994, and how hard those conditions must have been for young boys who were raised with propaganda and told it was either kill or be killed.

-I recognized some faces- a small man who danced with enthusiasm at the front of the group as they sang and waited, a man with sharp bone structure and defined cheekbones who smiled at us. I realized that it seemed like some faces were missing and I wondered who had left since last time. Had those who were missing completed their sentences?

-Eric translated for us; a brave feat for someone whose childhood had been affected by the genocide.They told us that they pictured America as a place where no one is poor and opportunities abound. When we explained that there is violence and tension in America, one asked us “We have one unified Rwanda now. In America, you are very smart. If America is so smart, why can’t they do this?” 

-We talked about how challenging the prison system in America is and they said they would want to come to America and talk to them- the prisoners/killers and the system workers- about their rehabilitation and what is possible. The very notion of that is mind-boggling and if America has any sense at all they will find a way to make that happen. Treating our prisoners as less than human does not rehabilitate citizens, it creates lifelong prisoners.

-They enjoyed our performance and I left feeling light and joyful. It feels strange to look back on that experience, but the fact is that we picture both the victims and perpetrators as two-dimensional. All people involved in the genocide were people just like us, and it will help us more as humanity to imagine them complexly. Instead of asking “How could those people do that?” we must reflect on ourselves and ask “What causes and conditions could cause me to do that too?” Only then can we prevent things like this from happening again.

Akagera Safari and Relaxation!

We have spent the last few days relaxing and going on a safari at Akagera National Park. Akagera is the oldest national park in Africa and is the easternmost point in Rwanda. We stayed in the beautiful Akagera Game Lodge; that may have been the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. We spend the afternoon by the pool and after dinner, we went on an evening safari. During the evening safari, we saw zebra, impala, giraffe, hippos, and many other animals. After a quick sleep, we spent the next day on six-hour safari that traveled the whole distance of the park. We saw many animals but the most impressive was one of the seven lions that reside at Akagera. It was a dream come to safari in Africa and I really couldn’t be any happier.  Rwanda is really showing me how fortunate I am.

“You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.”

Yesterday, we visited a prisoner camp. I didn't know how I would react. A couple days prior, seeing the memorials of all those killed and now standing in front of the killers. It was a little to surreal; while standing in front of them, all i could think is, "they look like every other Rwandan" The fact that they were prisoners didn't make them look any different. Understanding how sympathetic they were to their crimes was refreshing to see, they apologized to the victims' families. They explained how pressured they felt by the government, they felt that killing was their only option to save themselves.

 

What hit me and made me get a emotional was when Lily shared, that her dad was in prison and he took his own life because he didn't want to go back. And in that moment, I realized how messed up and awful America's prison system is. We have  built a system off dehumanizing, overcriminalization, and belittlement. We put our prisoners behind bars to strip them of their worth, make them feel invaluable and hopeless. Yet in Rwanda, their system is built off justice, rehabilitation and bettering the person and the community.  I have several family members in prison and I thought if they were in a Rwandan prison, they'd feel like they have their freedom back, just by being able to go outdoors, walk amongst free people and visit their families. That little bit of freedom can help so much, mentally.

Prison not a form of extreme punishment for Rwandans. For them, it's to say, "this is what you did wrong and  we'll help you be better. Not "you did something wrong, so you're going to be caged and miserable for the rest of your life." We informed the prisoners how our prison system is and they said why is it like that and we couldn't answer. Do we know why our system is so corrupt and why can't we help our prisoners be better people instead of of treating then like animals in a circus. Its something we have normalized but visiting Rwanda has made me realized things don't have to work the way they always have. 

Drew asked one of the prisoners, "what is your view of America?" 

They responded with, "powerful. No one is poor, not even one person.", And it had me thinking, what false information are they being fed about America and what false information are we being fed about other countries. Growing up, we know what the education wants us to know, so we're often blinded by this painted picture. And America has painted a pretty good picture of power and wealth and masked over the poverty, racism and sexism and all the inequalities that exist.

 

In America, we focus on ourselves too much. When one has a lot, we want more. In Rwanda, when one has a lot, they share with those who don't. Perhaps we should all have a little Rwandan in us.

 

 

Getting The Whole Story

On Tuesday, January 5th, we finally got to put our teacher training into action! To be totally honest, I was dreading spending the entire day training. Not because I think it wasn't important but because we have been doing so many exciting things that teacher training seemed less enjoyable. I was totally incorrect. In this teacher training, there were 12 Rwandan teacher trainers. We started the day by discussing Rwanda's new 2016 school curriculum and many major differences in our educational systems. This 2016 curriculum is very new and is very different that the last time they updated the curriculum. But instead of the teacher trainers being upset of the change they are completely happy and ready for the change. It was inspiring to see, as a new, teacher, such passion, and enthusiasm. Following this discussion, we began training teachers in different ways to incorporate drama into the curriculum to help make learning more comprehension based. This approach is very similar to the visual arts education that I have received at Buffalo State. 

Working together! 

Working together! 

We then put words into action! We started with "heart storming" about the teacher trainers feelings about the new 2016 curriculum. They started very broad with pages of words that described their feelings. Using their feelings they narrowed down the words to find common themes and connections to come up with catch phrases to encompass all feelings. We then prompted the teacher trainers to work with us to use our body's to then show the various catch phrases. Our last task was to incorporate word and language into the body performances. It was a wonderful experience to see my group and the Rwandan teachers working together for a common goal and also have so much fun together. The mood quickly changed and we became "family". It was sad to leave but so exciting knowing that our work will affect many children here. 

TIG Camp

TIG Camp

Today we took a trip that really me emotional, we visited  a TIG Camp. A TIG Camp is a work camp for perpetrators of the genocide. In order to complete their sentence at the work camp, they must confess to their crimes, most are there for mudering during the genocide. They then work to rebuild Rwanda; creating bricks, terracing the hills, and helping with agriculture. "Rebuilding the place they tried to destroy". It was really easy to hate these men prior to going to the camp. All of my pre-conceived anger towards these men really feel apart. And I really don't know how I feel, but it wasn't anger but mostly sadness. These men were tricked by the government, to hate their friends and neighbors to the point that they either kill or be killed. 

The view leaving the TIG camp

The view leaving the TIG camp

We walked around their camp while asking questions and they were more than honest. But what is really shocking the camp was just in the middle of the countryside, no guards, no guns, just the men. The men who want to change, who asked for forgiveness, who wanted their story to be told. They have come to terms with what they had done and want nothing more than to be better people for their families and for Rwanda. When given the opportunity the prisoners told us they imagine America to be a place with no problems and no poverty. It's incredible that how much has been accomplished here in Rwanda after the genocide but they still think that America is more forward. But after seeing these men, seeing how they have really embraced compassion, change, forgiveness, and reconciliation, I can say we have ALOT to learn about Rwanda. Not just the judicial and prison system but ways of living. That all men should be treated with dignity. 

Consistent Inconsistency

 

"You're consistently inconsistent" - Drew to me

The difference between how I felt before this prison compared to how I feel after it is striking.

I was scared, mad, hesitant, questioning, but I remained open. Having a conversation with Eve before the visit to the TIG Camp helped me to understand the camp a bit more but nothing compared to actually being there of course. When we go to genocide memorials, we feel as though the victims could have been any of us. Something that was interesting was that when we were at the prison camp we realized: those prisoners/perpetrators could have been any of us as well.

Perhaps it's that we were born in a different place, at a different time, and that we were educated differently. This idea carries into teaching - when you experience a rough time with a troubled student, you must remember the first sentence of this paragraph. This helps us to free ourselves from judgement and helps us with being empathetic and more importantly, opens us up to learn from people.

The first thing I noticed when we get off of our bus at the camp, was how beautiful and serene the landscape and setting was. The sun was casting such a surreal shadow into the hills as we were in the base of a valley. The air was more than fresh, cleansing the lungs, and you could hear cows mooing!

We approached the large group of prisoners (about 40 or so of them) as they were singing, clapping, and dancing. This instantly broke down walls and humanized these men for me and for many of us I'm sure. I was interested in trying to join in with them - some of us clapped and swayed, trying to apply some of the dance we learned at Inema.

With the dedicated and selfless help of our leaders and translators, Francoise and Eric, we spent a large amount of time asking each other questions. I learned so much from the men at the camp and I think we left an imprint on them too.

They shared with us that they envision America as a powerful, poverty free land. We shattered that dream a bit by explaining that we aren't as open about the truth as they are in Rwanda. 

The topic of how different America's prison system is from that of Rwanda's came up and this was when I feel that we took a few moments to really teach the men about how different America really is. I felt personally effected by this part of the conversation because I knew I had a story to tell that was creeping up my throat since the moment we saw the camp.

Drew helped us to see that most of these men were Dads and Grandads, because he asked (through Eric) that they raise heir hand if they're Dads. 

The connection was strengthened in my heart and in my brain... 

I have had experiences visiting my dad and another relative in various prisons in New York State while I was growing up. When I hear the word prison, I think of barbed wire, men with guns and batons, bars, numbered men, clearing security to visit, and how limited your interaction is as a free citizen just visiting someone.

I knew I had to tell the story of my father to these men to truly let them in on how much our prison system can ware on man. With the help of Eric, I told the men at the TIG camp about how I wish my dad would have been given an opportunity like they've been given. Perhaps things would have worked out differently for him if our system wasn't so dehumanizing. Through my tears, I could see the men look up at Eric if they weren't already. I felt that they felt that pain with me and the entire group. I looked at the beautiful clouds while explaining the story to Eric and the men, and again, it was so balanced with dark and light. This was the first time I was telling my Dad's story - out loud - and for good, to help others. I know he was there with us and is thankful.

"We would like to come to America to tell the imprisoned killers about the forgiveness we've found within ourselves." - prisoners at TIG

After we went back and forth with more questions and answers, it was time for us to perform our play for the men.  

I shared with the village that I wasn't sure how comfortable I would be with grabbing the hands of these men to sing and dance at the end of the play. However, I dropped the notion of 'me' and returned to the mindset of 'we'. By the end of the play, I found myself pumping up all of the men and grabbing their hands and wanted to continue dancing and singing for the rest of the day!! 

It was really hard to understand my emotions at that point and how much my view of the men had change.  

After our performance when we finished dancing and singing with the prisoners, I began to cry again, but this time it was because I didn't want to leave. 

Here is when Drew shared with me - the first quote of this blog. He spoke through laughter, and I relied through my mixture of crying and laughter. We decided that this sort of place can have that effect on you.

The conversations we had on the bus on the way home, and the inward thinking I spent time doing were so gratifying. I can't wait to hug all of my loved ones. 

I hope the world sees this and learns from the people, including ex-genocidaires in Rwanda. I hope that it will enlighten people to want to make changes after learning about the prison systems, just as it has done for me.

Amahoro

~ LI

"America the beautiful..."But do they know???

Some of the things I keep hearing while in Rwanda is that “America is great,” “there's so much opportunity,” “my dream is to go there!” One person today even said that they imagined that there is not even one poor person in America. So, that inspired me to write this:

"America the beautiful," but do they know...

That all of America's wealth is held by only 10% of the nation?

Do they know that I walk by homeless people who lay outside on the ground, even on cold winter nights?

Or that I watch people walk from cart to cart on the trains in NYC to beg for money to buy food?

Do they know that we have 25% of all the world's prisoners and we punish them rather than offer rehabilitation?

Do they know that we have so much crime because many people are angry?

Do they know that all though we are supposed to be a melting pot, racism and prejudice still exists?

Do they know that before any interview or any new position I take on, I wonder if the color of my skin will have an impact on how I am judged or how people perceive me?

OR that even when I'm complimented, for a example on how well I speak or how well I write,  I wonder if they genuinely see a girl who is more advanced than the rest of her peers, or if it's out of shock because I act differently from the way " those people" normally act?

Do they know that in some places in the U.S. some people walk past each other without a smile or wave and if you do try and talk to them, there's a chance you'll just receive attitude in response?

Do they know that children bully each other in schools because they look differently, value different things, or just to make themselves look good?

And do they know we sometimes have adults who notice and do nothing about it?

Do they know that some of us are impatient, we move too fast, and barely appreciate the finer things in life?

Do they know that many Americans think that America is as great as they think it is, and for that reason they show no compassion or even concern for the rest of the world?

Do they know that America has much to learn?

That, maybe, America should be more like them?!

~Crystal

 

There are 3 sides to every story...

It isn’t very often that one gets the chance to speak with perpetrators and ask them questions, but today I had that chance. If someone would have taken me to a prison in the U.S. and told me this was a place that housed people who killed large numbers of people, I probably would have gone in with an attitude of disgust and anger. My mindset would have been that they deserved to be in prison and I would have wished the worse for them.  I mean, they deserve the worst, right? Especially after all of the people whose lives they took. However, I didn’t have any of those feelings when visiting the Gikomero TIG Camp, here in Rwanda. I believe this is because we’ve experienced too much of Rwandan forgiveness and kindness for me to feel that way. Speaking with many Rwandans, I can see that they truly have forgiven the perpetrators, and if they have forgiven them, then that leaves no room for me to act angry towards them.

As we asked them questions we learned that they too were parents and grandparents, just like any other people. When we asked them how they got involved with the genocide, they responded by saying that the government had convinced them that the Tutsis were different from them and that they were bad. Also, if one wasn’t a killer, then they became a victim. It was hard to be against the government.

 The prisoners expressed genuine regret and sorrow for what they have done. They said that now, especially with the teachings of the new government, they realize that all Rwandans are one in the same and they all bleed the same blood. When asked what they would teach their children about the genocide, they said that they would tell them not to kill. Their message to the world was “people shouldn’t kill each other. We will all die. We will die from diseases or whatever, so stop killing.” They also shared that they do experience guilt from time to time for what they did; but when they do, they pray to God, take ownership of their crimes, and ask for peace. They also realize it wasn’t worth because even their children do not want to see them because they know that they are murderers.

One cannot visit this prison without halving to evaluate the American prison system, or at least I couldn’t. I found it amazing how the prisoners weren’t locked behind bars and huge walls. One could say that we need maximum security in American prisons because the people in them are dangerous, but these were people who were involved in the killings of thousands of people. So, what’s the difference? The difference is that the Rwandan system views the prisoners as people who are capable of change and who can be integrated into society again. In fact, that was the goal. On the contrary, I believe the American system focuses too much on punishment and revenge rather than rehabilitation. In the Rwandan system, the prisoners are treated as human beings. They teach them to confess and ask for forgiveness, but they also offer them forgiveness and trust. The prisoners are allowed to leave the prison once a week to visit their families, and they always come back. Also, the work that they do while in prison is meaningful. They work to rebuild the city that they tried to destroy. They make bricks that are used for buildings, work in agriculture, and in construction.

There is so much that the United States could learn from Rwanda in general, but especially from their prison system. 


Teacher Training

Our work with the Wellspring teacher trainers was especially gratifying because it was the same group we worked with last year. It was so great to be reunited with them and hear how they had been using the work we had done. Our story building workshop was very successful, accomplishing in a few hours what had taken a few days last year. Hearing the discussions and participating in the work solidified something I’ve been thinking a lot about this past year- that I might be a teacher.

This thought has been quietly humming in the back of my mind for several years now, and it has always been something I’ve pushed away. I love kids (I worked at summer camp for five years) but I know I want to be an actor, and I also know I don’t like the ways schools work nowadays. I wouldn’t want to be a teacher bound by common core and tests, so for years I always told myself teaching was not in the cards for me.

But I’m beginning to realize that I don’t have to pick one or the other, that I can be an actor and also find ways to teach in my life. When we were working with Wellspring I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I could do if I could do this work with students. The realization that most people probably don’t daydream about having a classroom made me realize that my drive to teach isn’t going anywhere.

This past semester when touring Mirror/Mirror we ended our workshop with a meditation about self-talk, and the last part was always to picture our best and highest selves. This meditation created a very specific image of myself surrounded by kids and teenagers in a colorful studio with light streaming through large windows. I want to create a program where kids can come to do theater and art, maybe an after school program. That won’t stop me from being an actor, but will only enhance my career. I want to do it all.

Kigali Genocide Memorial

I've bee having trouble finding words to describe the experience at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Words seem wholly inadequate. Powerful. Emotional. Overwhelming. I had hoped to have a better understanding of "why" but I only have more questions. I was drained when I left, emotionally and physically. Reading about the events leading up to the 1994 Genocide was shocking. I hadn't realized that this was not the first genocide attempt in Rwanda's recent history. The conditions that preceded the 1994 Genocide so closely mirrored those of the Holocaust that one can't help but wonder how the world could possibly let this happen. Over one million people?! Yet world leaders debated the value of intervention?! So senseless. Such insanity. 

Most striking for me were the images of child survivors bearing horrific wounds. Wide, deep gashes on the head.  severed limbs...who inflicts this upon a child? Knowing that so many were killed so violently was overwhelming for me. To imagine the hatred, the violence, the terror faced by so many children in their final moments, at the hands of people with whom they lived side by side is baffling to me. What in this world is more beautiful, more life-affirming, more symbolic of hope than a child? To destroy that beauty, to end that life, to eliminate that hope is surely an act born of pure evil. What drives a person to this violence, this hatred? Desperation? Fueled by propaganda? Brainwashing? It can only be brainwashing. Still, I believe in the goodness of people. As I write this, I can hear the sounds of children playfully shouting and laughing in the valley below. It comforts me and reaffirms my belief in the inherent goodness of the human spirit.

Belgian Memorial

The Belgian Memorial - very powerful. Visiting the place where Belgian UN Peacekeepers were murdered by Hutu extremists was unsettling. To see the bullet holes where the men were forced into the corner of a room and gunned down turned my stomach. The memorial made the violence I'd learned about in books and documentaries seem startlingly real. Vivid scenes from the documentary "Ghosts of Rwanda"  sprang into my mind as my eyes surveyed the bullet-sprayed walls. How did this happen, these powerful events, driven by powerful emotion? How did the people of this nation recover? How did they go from violence to reconciliation? How was peace possible? How does one heal? How does an entire nation heal? How do they learn to trust again? So many questions...

Emotional Rollarcoaster

Frank

Frank

Sunday’s here are a day or rest and celebration so it was a very easy going day on the 3rd.  We started it in the local market, that resembled a large and cramped flea market in the United States. During our time at the market, I was bombarded with many scents, sounds, and people. This overstimulation quickly subsided when we started bartering at the crafts section of the market. All the handmade African crafts were so beautiful. While looking for gifts from home, I met a young boy named Frank. Frank is a young boy from Rwanda and was incredibly sweet in helping me find everything I wanted and at a good price. Many of my peers bought from Frank and it was so great to see his happiness. After we left the crafts section I went to the fabric section where you can get almost anything hand-made, from shirts to skirts to dresses.  I found some beautiful batiked floral fabric and I requested the tailor to make me pillowcases. He had never made them before but he was more than happy to try.

Inema Art Center

Inema Art Center

Following the market, we spent the rest of the day at Inema Arts Center”. This was a house that was converted into a dancing, artist studio, and gallery. We were welcomed there with open arms and we took a traditional Rwandan dance workshop. Dance has never been my skill but it was really nice to try something new and put myself out there. After our dance workshop, we took a paint workshop lead by the founders of the arts center. We each were given a canvas to share and they made a huge paint pallet full or acrylic paint. I painted an abstracted female figure with expressive color and line work, one of the founders really liked my painting. He told me, “art [for him] is about breaking the rules".  I really enjoyed talking to the founders of Inema and about their artwork, which is featured throughout the inside and out of the center. Our time at the art center ended with a dance performance of about 20 children, who attend the art center. They gave a beautiful and happy performance and at the end of the show, each child brought us into the performance to participate and to teach us some dance moves.

Dancing at Inema

Dancing at Inema

Unfortunately, the day after wasn’t all fun and games. Early in the morning, we traveled to a refugee camp an hour away from Kigali. Gihembe refugee camp is on top of a small hill with over 17,000 refugees. As we arrived our bus was immediately surrounded by dozens of children. They were so excited to see us they pounded on the windows and waved. This excitement from the children lasted our entire time at Gihembe. It was great to see how happy they were, but it incredibly overwhelming. I have used this word before to describe the trip but the children overtook me; grabbing my hands, going through my pockets, touching my hair. The situation became very claustrophobic. This feeling was also exaggerated that this small hill was full of so many people, animals, and buildings. Their houses and schools are dwarfed by my bedroom in Buffalo.  It was yet another humbling experience. After touring the camp, we performed a play about Anne Frank that we have been rehearsing on, and the children and adults alike loved it. Not because they could understand what we were saying per say but because for 20 minutes someone outside of the camp really cared for them.

Where I last left you in my journey I was at an emotional high and again my experiences have made my heart stretch. I wanted so much to be happy at the refugee camp with all the refugees smiling faces but it was so hard. Small happiness comes knowing that the donations I collected from Frontier Central High School were actually going to children who really need them. Another one is knowing by just being at the camp showed the people of the refugee camp that we care.

 

Tuesday Teacher Training

On Tuesday, we woke up to the sound of rain pattering on the tin corrugated roof outside of our room. It was so peaceful enjoying the calming rain this morning as I overlooked the hills from the porch of the second floor. There's something about rain that makes you feel at ease - as if we are given a chance to lay low and be a bit melancholic just as Mother Nature is. This calm morning was much needed after the excitement of the last week.

We've all made special connections here. Many people ask if we plan to return and are very fond of those who have. It's meaningful for people to know that they have connections in the US / in other countries. Today during teacher training and Wellspring Academy, I felt a pull on my heart as one of the colleagues and friends that I made, Ernest, asked if I will ever come back or teach in Rwanda. If I came back solely to work with those teacher trainers, it would be worth it. There are many reasons, actually, People to come back here for; The many children I've shared small talk with in various languages, our friend Clovis at Gihembe, Elvis from the village, 'little Jerry' at Gashora, and Ernest.

It's easy to say 'yes, ill come back' and it's also easy to say 'wow, screw America! I'm staying here and teaching and living a lovely happy life!!!'

Both of these statements need to be evaluated carefully. It's good to recall a rule of the village: consider anything for five minutes.

Yes, I would love to come back. But yes, I would also hate to lie to someone like Clovis and say I'm coming back just because I'm feeling good at heart and it feels nice.

When it comes to staying here, I'm thankful that Crystal reminded me in a very grounding way that I have a duty back home in America's education system to change it for the better and to leave my footprint by telling my students that they matter while preparing them for life. Ever since last semester, I have truly found my place in Buffalo's community and recognize that the work I hope to do will be focused on a more specific area. You never know the future though.

Learning about the education system and the new national curriculum in Rwanda was so very enlightening and informing.

One of the things that stood out to me the most was something that came up while we had our tea break and I spoke with Ernest. I asked him about the new curriculum. More specifically, I asked him about the qualifications of the government officials who are in charge of writing it. I shared with him that in America, we have something called the common core and that in most cases, the ones who wrote this curriculum have little to zero experience in education or teaching. It's not 100% different in Rwanda, but he did say that some of the officials do indeed have a background in teaching. It seems and sounds like the new curriculum will be very much so geared toward the best interest of the future of Rwanda. This is one of the many ways in which this nation is forward thinking and willing to share their ideals with us so that hopefully we can change our nation for the better, too.

Students are not only taught languages, math, science, and social studies, but focus on genocide studies, hygiene, and various values such as: unity, uniqueness, accountability, peace, and reconciliation among many others.

Feedback and observation driven forms of testing their curriculum are utilized. There is so much to learn here. My notebook is filling up! 

Overall, yesterday was such a full and fun day building themes and structure to describe how we feel about the new curriculum in Rwanda. I took many notes and gave much of my mind and heart to our friends at Wellspring. I look forward to hearing how drama based education flows into their curriculum along with hearing how the new curriculum is! They don't start school until February so the anticipation is strong! 

That's all for now!

Amahoro! 

~ LI

Tea time!

Tea time!

Some of the many adjectives we found to describe how we all feel about the new national curriculum. 

Some of the many adjectives we found to describe how we all feel about the new national curriculum. 

Journey through Photos

Before the trip, I was fortunate to put money together with my mom to purchase my first DSLR camera as I mentioned in my first post. I have had a blast learning how to use it with the help our friends here on the trip. Most of my photos are on my camera and I have no way up uploading them to my tiny iPad while I'm here. However, I have some photos taken with my iPhone to share. 

 

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Baby goats are the coolest. I met him and his baby goat while exploring with John and Tolu.

Baby goats are the coolest. I met him and his baby goat while exploring with John and Tolu.

Waiting for lunch to commence at Lac Rumira! 

Waiting for lunch to commence at Lac Rumira! 

All of the beautiful handmade baskets at the women's cooperative at Gashora. 

All of the beautiful handmade baskets at the women's cooperative at Gashora. 

Our wonderful paintings that we created at Inema! It was very courteous of them to allow us to utilize some of their materials :) 

Our wonderful paintings that we created at Inema! It was very courteous of them to allow us to utilize some of their materials :) 

Dancing at Inema! 

Dancing at Inema! 

New Year's Eve

I awoke this morning in a bed tented with a mosquito net, listening to birdsong unlike any I've heard before and thought, "My God, I'm in Africa!" What a gift I've been given! It's an amazing thing that I'm able to step onto a plane in snowy, slushy Toronto and within hours traverse an ocean, stepping off the plane into the bright sunshine and warmth of another continent. I am truly one of the worlds most fortunate when I consider the percentage of the world's population that will ever be afforded the same opportunity. I am grateful and eager to experience Rwanda.

I was excited to compare the New Year's Eve traditions in Kigali to American traditions.  I'm not sure I saw the Kigali celebration, though I heard it! A few of us went to a club around 10:30 pm and there were very few people there. We returned to the hostel and joined a card game with people from Amsterdam, Denmark and later, Kenya. What a cool thing, to party with friendly strangers from around the world on New Year's Eve! At midnight, we toasted the new year and continued the game. We laughed a lot, then turned in for the night around 1am. Shortly thereafter, the sounds of celebration roared up from the valley below. Loud thumping music and energetic cheers continued until 5am! Then, around 7am, the soothing songs from the worship service gently floated up and continued throughout the morning. It was simply delightful!