A Reason to Smile

Published April 8, 2015

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide.



Joy Watson travelled with Network for Africa founder Rebecca Tinsley and others to Rwanda in March. Today, on the 21st anniversary of the start of the genocide, we share her impressions of Rwanda.

“The land of a thousand hills and a million smiles” declares the large billboard that greets new arrivals at Kigali airport in the beautiful country of Rwanda. This marked my second visit to Africa, my first to Rwanda, but was this bold declaration true? I was intrigued to discover what this small, land-locked nation was truly like, not least because it is the same size as my native Wales, which also boasts a large number of hills. But that’s where the similarities seem to end. Wales is surrounded on three sides by the sea, has a population a third of the size of Rwanda and despite political and social injustices laced through its history, did not experience a million deaths in three months, just two decades ago.

As our trip unfolded, it became clear it was going to be one of striking contrasts. We went from visiting amazing life-giving projects funded by Network for Africa, where women and children were given dignity, knowledge, skills for life and productivity, to viewing memorial sites where the clothes of those murdered were draped over pews that had not been used for worship for almost 21 years. The pervasive stench of trauma, desolation and death still hung rank in the air.

As a counsellor, I am used to confronting the effects of loss, pain, abuse and trauma, but what I was seeing and sensing was on a whole different level to that which I had ever seen and sensed before. Here was a country that appeared to have had its very heart ripped out in the seemingly senseless decimation of so many innocent lives. Is it ever possible to smile again after something like that? Apparently so. Admittedly the smiles were slow, reticent, wary, but nonetheless genuine. These remarkable people reached out and responded to kindness, empathy and warmth. They opened up to us in ways hard to comprehend given their experiences. They shared their stories and their lives and the little they have so generously, whilst exhibiting such extraordinary resilience and tenacity.

There’s another tag line bandied around in this enigmatic country: “Rwanda, the heart of Africa.” Whilst I suspect this is a reference to its geographical location, I found myself wondering ‘what if’. What if this stunning, lush, ‘full of potential’ nation were to become the ‘heart’ of Africa? A place of life and energy where the life-blood is pumped carefully, lovingly, equitably to every part; where compassion, empathy and kindness pulse and spill out into all communities and surrounding countries. A place of passion, creativity, colour and restoration, where differences are celebrated and all life is valuable. Now that would be something to smile about.

Copyright © 2015 Network for Africa, All rights reserved.

Traveling Teaches Students in a Way Schools Can’t

Published December 2, 2014

American education is largely limited to lessons about the West.




When I turned 15, my parents sent me alone on a one-month trip to Ecuador, the country where my father was born. This was tradition in our family—for my parents to send their first-generation American kids to the country of their heritage, where we would meet our extended family, immerse ourselves in a different culture, and learn some lessons on gratefulness.

My family’s plan worked. That month in Ecuador did more for my character, education, and sense of identity than any other experience in my early life. And five years later, my experience in Ecuador inspired me to spend more time abroad, studying in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. These two trips not only made me a lifelong traveler, but also a person who believes traveling to developing countries should be a necessary rite of passage for every young American who has the means.

It’s often said that spending time in less affluent countries teaches Americans never to take anything for granted. To some extent, this is true. During my time traveling in these areas, I often traveled without access to hot water, Internet, air conditioning, or even basic electricity. I slept in rooms with spiders, mosquitos, and bedbugs. I rode on public transportation that rarely left on time and often broke down suddenly in remote areas. Stripped of my daily habits and expectations, I was forced to surrender the idea that I have a right to anything—including the luxury of convenience, or days when everything I’ve planned actually happens. And my minor travel hassles seemed even more petty when I realized that they represented larger systemic problems that locals must deal with every day.

But these trips didn’t only teach me to appreciate what I had; they also moved me to consider why I had it in the first place. I realized that much of what I thought was necessity was, in fact, luxury and began to realize how easily I could survive off of much less. I didn’t necessarily need hot water or a timely bus or a comfortable bed to be happy for the day. I didn’t necessarily need a jaw-dropping landscape or a famous archeological ruin or a stunning beach to make my travels worth it. Instead, most of the time, that fulfillment came from the people I interacted with—not the things I had or did. It came from eating soup with locals at a rest stop on a 12-hour bus ride, sharing a meal with Peruvian soccer fans while watching a match, or chatting with the owner of my hostel during his lunch break. Discovering that my best travel moments came from these subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones made me understand that living contently required little. What I originally thought I “took for granted,” I now rethought taking at all.

My best travel moments came from subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones.

Before traveling, I also assumed people from developing countries would all want the advantages I had as an American. And yet, I discovered that the people in these countries didn’t necessarily feel like their lives were lacking. During my last visit to South Africa, I worked with John Gilmour, the executive director of LEAP schools, a charter network for low-income students. Gilmour told me about an encounter he had visiting a Cape Town township community before he decided to open his first school near there. A local showed him a street corner and told him, “This is my favorite place in the whole entire world.” Gilmour was skeptical and argued, “How could you say that? Look at the graffiti, look at the trash covering the floor, look at the unpaved road.” The other man responded, “No, look at the people.”

Traveling to these places made me realize that the “advantages” I initially thought I had over others were not necessarily advantages to everyone. Many actually preferred living with the challenges they faced over living in a country like mine, where other things are missing. A professional I met in South America who had turned down a job offer in the United States told me, “I’d never want to move there, even though I’d make more money. The social part of life is better here, I find people happier here, and my quality of life is what matters most.” Rick Steves, the popular travel guidebook writer and television host, expressed similar thoughts in an interview with Salon when he said, “It’s a very powerful Eureka! moment when you’re traveling: to realize that people don’t have the American dream. They’ve got their own dream. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.”

These were important lessons for me to learn as a young person in the midst of making important life decisions. It was empowering to know I had experienced a wide range of perspectives and could use them to make choices for myself—that I had been in situations with few resources or comforts, and I was still okay.

This past summer, I volunteered as a program leader for Global Glimpse, a nonprofit organization that takes American high school seniors on three-week trips to Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador.* My students—who came from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds—visited local museums, cultural centers, and businesses, learned about fair-trade business practices, and volunteered at local nonprofits. They milked goats and carried wood on their backs to experience a day working like a local farmer. They spent an afternoon visiting the city dump where families work sifting through the trash to gather recyclable materials to make $1 to $2 a day. They also learned about the ongoing U.S. involvement in Nicaraguan politics, hearing stories from locals whose families had lives been altered by political instability.

Many of my students admitted that they had not once learned about Nicaraguan history or culture in their 11 years of education. Before I traveled, my own public school education had taught me little about non-Western people, cultures, and history, or how American policy had shaped them. American history classes instead focused on wars fought on our own soil instead of the many conflicts we involved ourselves in abroad. The Advanced Placement program in high school still only offers specialized courses in American and European history, and lumps the rest into the broader topic of “World History.” With this Western-focused curriculum, traveling to developing countries is often the only way of gaining any perspective on less-developed parts of the world.

My public school education had taught me little about non-Western people, or how American policy had shaped them.

Yet, unfortunately, most Americans have not prioritized these kinds of experiences. Unlike the U.K., where 75 percent of citizens have passports, in the U.S. the rate hovers around 45 percent, with some surveys showing that more than half of the population has never traveled outside of the country. When Americans do travel, the most popular destinations are in Europe or resort locations around the Caribbean—places that cater to a traveler’s sense of comfort and luxury. I can only imagine how American culture, business, and politics might change if more young people decided to forgo a comfortable vacation and instead pursue a genuine travel experience—not a short-lived, consumer-oriented “voluntourism” trip, where privileged visitors drop in casually without careful research or consideration of long-term needs—but a trip where people are driven to challenge what we accept as “normal” or “real.”

My parents were on to something when they decided to send me to Ecuador years ago. But that trip did far more than teach me lessons on culture and gratitude. It fundamentally changed my life trajectory and the way I wanted to engage with the world. I hope more American students can have the opportunity to experience the same.



An American Girl in Cuba

Published October 9, 2014

Lili Boyle
16-year-old from Pacific Palisades, CA


Posted: 02/08/2012 8:24 am EST Updated: 04/09/2012 5:12 am EDT

Simply put, I love Cuba. No, I am not a communist or a socialist, and I have nothing but love for my country, America. But my biased perceptions of Cuba were broken when I got the chance to explore Cuba and immerse myself in Cuban culture. This past June, I was lucky enough to gain the opportunity to visit Cuba through a student visa. I traveled throughout the island with other students from my school. Our eclectic group had diverse backgrounds with hometowns stretching from Olympia, Washington to Wheeling, West Virginia to my home of Pacific Palisades. As we were getting to know Cuba, we also got to get to know each other better.


Exploration was the cornerstone of our trip; we got the chance to explore the entire country, even inland areas such as Vinales, which is famed for its mogotes, which are large limestone formations that date back to the Jurassic period. We adventured in Cienfuegos, which is renowned for its Cuban architectural achievement and in Trinidad, which is the best-preserved colonial city in Cuba, just to name a few. The two weeks of our trip seemed endless during the duration of our stay, but now looking back, our time in Cuba was too short — even ephemeral. The majority of our time was spent in the historic capitol, Havana. The city of Havana has starkly juxtaposed elements ranging the beautiful architecture to the loud, littered streets. Havana is haunted by the ghost of its colorful and ritzy past. Glamour glints under the aged buildings and the aged society. Havana really does look like a picture from the 1950’s — the dated cars may have been preserved well, but society, not so much. Havana is a city of youth, somehow living in a microcosm of a quondam culture, prevented from evolving. Ration books, a relic of age-old communism that most Cubans used to buy goods, were just eliminated by Raul Castro this past April. Cuba is truly frozen in time, from the peeling paint on the buildings, the empty stores, to the changeless society. Cuba is still a country of extreme paucity — even soap is seen as a luxury. In essence, Cuba is completely beautiful yet eroded. There is tremendous beauty hidden underneath 50-some years of weathering.


We truly experienced all the facets of Cuban culture. My friend was warned by a Cuban family friend before we went to Cuba that we would only experience the “Disneyland version of Cuba.” I can assure you that statement is false. Wherever we went, the highs and lows of Cuban society were clearly illustrated; we saw the beauty, the poverty, the arts, the decay, the hospitality and the biases.

Throughout the entire experience, the gap between America and Cuba was somewhat tangible and worth documenting, but the most palpable illustration of the differences between our societies was seen when visiting the Martin Luther King Junior Center. The center provided a service to Cuban youth similar to our Boys and Girls Clubs. We spent about five hours with the children, learning from each other and communicating in broken English and Spanish.


It was shocking to me how content and happy the Cuban children are with their lives in the restricting and anti-capitalist microcosm that is Cuba. Their parents receive only 1/163 of what our parents make, yet they are not resentful or unhappy about that in any way. Unlike American children, they are not greedy and they have never been on the quest of trying to have more than someone else. When I asked the children if they wanted or even needed anything from America, they replied that they didn’t need anything, that they were happy and content with their lives in Cuba. They repeated again and again, “Yo estoy contento!” Then again, when we gave out the gifts that we brought for them, it was like Christmas in June! The kids were so kind and appreciative. On their own, they carefully and kindly divided the gifts so each kid got something that they loved.

Through talking to the kids at the center, I realized that we are all truly all the same. Even though we may be slightly separated by the embargo, a clear consequence of our feuding countries, our similarities are palpable. The wealth gap between our nations is insanely large; American workers, on average, receive $3261 each month and the preponderance of the Cuban population earns about only 20 American dollars per month. Even with this vast discrepancy, the Cuban children really are just like American children. They gabbed about their crushes on Justin Bieber, how much they love Hannah Montana and their jealousy of Justin Bieber’s girlfriend, Selena Gomez. They sang me “Baby” and a myriad of Hannah Montana songs including “Nobody’s Perfect.” They use dated cell phones and they even dress in a similar fashion. They even speak some English! The disparity between our children and these children lies only in the fact that the Cuban children have less, much less than the American children, and how they are completely content with that.

Before I had to leave the MLK center, we all exchanged contact information. I feel so lucky that I have been able to have an email exchange with Melissa since I left Cuba last June. Every email she reminds me that she is still “estoy contento” and that she doesn’t need anything from America, but she is thankful that I asked. My connection to my friendships in Cuba has lasted, providing a thread that ties our feuding countries together. I hope that Melissa and I will continue to maintain this valuable connection throughout our lives. But my deepest hope is that children of America realize how good we have it and that we shall forever be “estamos contentos” with our fortunate (and democratic!) lives.

slide_208008_668612_free         slide_208008_668621_free






Mira Costa School – Seeds of Change

Published April 9, 2014

by  on April 8, 2014 in Letters From Cambodia
Outside of the busy, jam-packed streets of Phnom Phen lays the Montessori school which we visited today. The owner of the schools also operates the guest house that we’re staying at in order to raise funds in her quest to education the children of Cambodia. The Montessori is made to be self-sustaining, using left over food for re-purposing into gas, a thatched roof and walls to keep the school cool, and the future planned installation of solar panels.
Upon the start of our visit we met the owner as she explained her story and connections to the Khmer Rouge. She told her struggle to operate the school and her solutions she has used to try to fix some of the glaring issues with keeping her dream a float. She has used web sites that were the Cambodian equivalent of KickStarter. With this she has been able to build on to her school and add more facilities. We ate a Khmer lunch made by some of the volunteers and workers at the school. Many of the people there stay long periods of time and are from other countries and continents. One of the workers, an Australian, stays with his wife and has a daughter who is enrolled in the Montessori.
Boy with mask.
Blazing in the hot Cambodian air, the sun gleams an orangish tint as the sound of dogs barking can be heard faintly in the distance. Students dig and churn cement for foundations as others joke and play with the children, making them laugh. As the wind blows faintly through the walls of the school we played with the children, and gave them their donations. The teacher read aloud the names of the gifts in English, to teach the children vocabulary. The children perform a rendition of “The Red Hen” to show how much English they have learned. I’ve never seen so much joy from people who have so little.

Mira Costa School – Cambodia 2014 Pictures

Published April 6, 2014

The group is now exploring in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  I received these photos from Alethea this morning.

Funerary Stupa at the Killing Fields
(above and below)
Killing Fields
Max and Tyler help clean up after lunch.

Students mixing cement for Montessori school project.

Montessori school at Tonle Bati
(above and below)
Children of Montessori School
(above and below)
Children of Tonle Bati

Feeding the fish in Siem Reap

Baby Tilapia and Derek’s feet.

Honoring the dead at Tuol Sleng Prison

With Tuol Sleng prison survivor

Mr. Hernandez at work and play

Emma Willard School Exploring Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Published March 24, 2014

Daniela and Josephine in Phnom Penh

Daniela and Josephine at the Royal Palace.

Claire, Josephine and Abby in the Royal Palace garden.
Our Guest House in Phnom Penh
Out and about in Phnom Penh

Cambodia Living Arts performance at the National Museum

Cooking Lessons and Swimming
Visit to the Tonle Bati Seametrey Children’s Center.

On to Siem Reap next!
All photographs courtesy of Emma Willard travelers.

Investigative Journalism – A Day in Pictures

Published March 28, 2013

A sampling of photos represent the magical discoveries of our adventure. As we conclude our last day in Xieng Khuang and prepare for the 6+ hour long bus ride to Luang Prabang, the following snapshots provide a glimpse of the exceptional experiences we’ve enjoyed in the Laotian highlands.

Our intrepid video instructors Jeff Macintyre of ABC News and Cheri Gaulke of Harvard-Westlake School prove that necessity is the mother of invention and just about anything can serve as a tripod in a pinch
Max’s creative style is the subject of local fascination. 
Saavan and Milo observe the resourcefulness of re-purposing weapons: old mortars are recycled into a garden fence. 
Marcy and Sarah show how easy it is for small children to mistake a cluster bomb for a toy. (All weapons pictured are inert and have had their explosives removed by munitions experts.) 

Shingo, Max and Koji lead the parade of pre-schoolers who follow us into Ta Chok village. 
Gabi and her new friend demo Ta Chok village
Patty cake games are the only shared language we need! 
Kayla and Aimee’s new friends didn’t want to say goodbye.
Sarah demonstrates the fun of dancing the Macarena to a playful group of Ta Chok village kids
Hana teaches Ta Chok villagers a game of “patty-cake” 
Our cluster bomb survivor friend, Mr. Yae Li. After interviewing him, we donated clothing for his whole family and nearly 200lbs of rice to sustain them until summer.
Kayla and Hana are instructed by the UXO removal team to detonate cluster bombs and clear land that Lao people have risked their lives to farm for over 40 years. 
A UXO clearance team demonstrates the tedious work of scanning the Earth for subterranean munitions.
A UXO clearance expert demonstrates the delicate art of digging the detected metal fragments from the clay soil.
Cluster bombs explode in the distance!
Caption: A cluster bomb to be detonated beneath a sandbag.
UXO clearance team and our group celebrate a successful clearance activity and share a wish for a more peaceful world.

Sapa O’ Chau and Community Power

Published November 20, 2012

Read the latest Rice Roots newsletter from Sapa O’Chau, one of our amazing service learning partners in Vietnam. Sapa O’Chau provides education to the ethnic minority girls and boys from the villages surrounding Sapa who would otherwise have limited access to educational opportunities beyond the age of ten.

Cambodian Landmine Museum – Partner Highlight

Published August 29, 2012

 Laguna Blanca School 2012 Peace Works Travel travelers with Aki Ra.
Our Peace Works Travel students learn and fund-raise on behalf of the Cambodian Landmine Museum. CLM is an educational center for tourists to learn more about the consequences of landmines and Aki Ra’s noble work. Administrated by the incredible husband and wife team, Bill and Jill Morse, CLM serves as a global community resource. In addition to providing an interactive museum, fascinating displays, and informative guided lectures, the museum also boasts a gorgeous gift shop filled with artisan objects made to benefit landmine victims. Whether it’s a compelling T-shirts, woven textiles, books, music or jewelry made from re-purposed ordnance, the products support the self-sustainability of landmine victims-turned entrepreneurs. Jill Morse administers an exceptional onsite orphanage and school that services disabled and economically disadvantaged children. The learners range in age, though all are motivated to become proficient in all subjects in preparation for college. 

Our Peace Works Travel students are lucky to engage in a conversational English and digital pen-pal communications with the students of the Cambodian Landmine Museum. 

Contact Us for information about how to connect your classroom in a pen-pal exchange.   (info@peaceworkstravel.com)

A look at UXOs and an interview with Legacies of War

Published July 19, 2012

Bombed regions are highlighted in red and yellow
What’s a UXO, anyway? 
Unexploded Ordinances (UXOs) is a term used to describe military armaments  (bombs,  landmines, hand grenades, bullets, etc.) that were armed and launched with the intent to kill, but which, due to design or malfunction, never detonated.  These “duds” range in all shapes and sizes and while some are clearly bombs, others are easily mistaken for rusty cans, balls or car mufflers. If touched, UXOs can explode at any moment. This makes them extremely dangerous, especially to children who might confuse a “dud” with a potential plaything. Even worse, UXOs aren’t always easy to find; some might be on top of the ground, but often they are fully or partially buried, can lurk under grass and bushes and even linger beneath bodies of water. 

Okay, but why should I care about these “duds”? 

UXOs remain in former combat zones, military testing ranges and bombing sites from recent wars. Between 1964 and 1973 the US dropped over two million tons of ordinances onto Laos, but 30% of them did not detonate! Laos alone is contaminated by 75 million “duds,” most of which are cluster bombs, residual from the Vietnam War.  Since 1964, these leftover UXOs have killed 50,000 Laotians and counting (30,000 of which were civilians)  and injured 20,000 (20,000 of these deaths and injuries occurred after the war!). That’s right, UXOs continue to kill people long after wars are over and the military has packed up and left.  

So what can we do to clean up these “bombies”? 
This week Peace Works Travel World had the opportunity to talk with our volunteer partner in Laos, Legacies of War, about UXOs, the Secret War, and Legacies’ effort to spread awareness and clear the country from the contamination of cluster munitions. Mari Quenemoen, Program Consultant with Legacies answers our questions and gives information and advice on how you can get involved. 

Hillary Clinton at COPE in Vientiane, Laos, photo courtesy Legacies of War
What was the “Secret War”? Why was America bombing Laos in the first place?
The U.S. dropped bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War for a number of reasons. The U.S. provided support to the Royal Lao Government in a civil war against the communist-leaning Pathet Lao, and it also continuously bombed the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that crosses over into Laos. Veterans of the war have also reported that pilots were instructed to release their un-used payloads over Laos rather than risk landing in Thailand with a plane full of bombs. The war was “secret” because Laos was officially a neutral country at the time, making war against it in violation of international law.  
Why do most American citizens know so little about US involvement in and bombing of Laos?
Most Americans know about the war in Vietnam because it was formally declared, and also because information about that war is readily available in our history books  and in the media. This is not the case with Laos. Even most members of Congress did not know the full extent of U.S. involvement in Laos at the time, and details of the bombings remained highly secret for decades. Recently declassified strike data finally brought to light the massive scale of the bombings. That’s why Legacies strives to raise greater awareness about the history of the bombing and the ongoing problems caused by unexploded ordnance.

What makes cluster bombs so dangerous and difficult to clear?
Unlike mines, which were often set in a relatively well-defined area (hence the term “mine field”), cluster bombs were dropped over a vast territory, making their location much harder to predict. Any surface in an area that experienced bombing could be contaminated with bombs. Some bombs got buried in the soil, only to resurface decades later. Clearance teams must often survey an area multiple times before feeling confident that the area is clear. Also, as the bombs age and decay, they become more and more volatile.

What are some of the organizations Legacies works with? How have they been effective in bringing about positive change?
Legacies of War works with partner organizations providing life-saving victim assistance, mine risk education, and UXO clearance on the ground in Laos, including World Education, Mines Advisory Group (MAG), the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) Center that Secretary Clinton visited in Vientiane, HALO, and Norwegian People’s Aid. Legacies of War has also partnered with Refugee Nation, a theater troupe in L.A., to engage Lao-American communities in sharing stories about the Lao-American experience.

How can education and heightened awareness help to promote hope, healing and peace?
Our education and advocacy work has multiple goals: to increase the resources available to do UXO clearance, victim assistance, and mine risk education in Laos; to raise awareness among the U.S. public about the history of the bombings of Laos and the remaining problem of UXO; and to provide space within the Laotian-American community to heal the wounds of war. We have been struck that this issue resonates with people across the political spectrum – most people can agree that no child growing up in Laos today should have to live in fear of bombs that were dropped over 40 years ago. Legacies has successfully worked with members of Congress to support legislation to increase the resources allocated to UXO programs in Laos from $3 million in 2008 to $9 million in 2012. We have also reached out to thousands of people across the country with our traveling exhibition and our social media work. The more people know and talk about this issue, the more pressure will grow in Washington to do something about it.

What can American students do to make a difference and get involved?
College students can consider starting a Legacies of War student chapter!  Even without a chapter, students can raise awareness on campus in multiple ways: hosting a screening of a film like Bombies or Surviving the Peace, organizing a Lao meal or trip to a Lao restaurant with a presentation on UXO, organizing a petition drive, or creating an exhibit to raise awareness at a community or campus event. We would be happy to talk to student groups interested in doing more!  Also, getting involved can start small….”like” our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter, share our content, and spread the word!

How has Legacies been effective in clearing UXOs and helping the future of the Laotian people?
1) Through our education and advocacy efforts in Washington, DC, Legacies has helped raise the level of U.S. funding allocated to UXO programs in Laos. More money means more land cleared, more farmers able to safely tend to their fields, and fewer children playing on contaminated soil.

2) We have increased the visibility of this issue so the next generation will contribute to ending this legacy of war in Laos. UXO contamination is a large problem that will require a long-term solution – at current funding levels, it could take 100 years to solve. We need a significant, sustained investment over the long term to make Laos bomb-free.

3) Our outreach efforts have allowed people affected by the bombings and UXO, in Laos and in the U.S., to share their stories and continue healing the wounds of war.Most Americans know about the war in Vietnam because it was formally declared, and also because information about that war is readily available in our history books  and in the media. This is not the case with Laos. Even most members of Congress did not know the full extent of U.S. involvement in Laos at the time, and details of the bombings remained highly secret for decades. Recently declassified strike data finally brought to light the massive scale of the bombings. That’s why Legacies strives to raise greater awareness about the history of the bombing and the ongoing problems caused by unexploded ordnance.