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.
American education is largely limited to lessons about the West.
AMANDA MACHADO DEC 1 2014, 9:00 AM ET
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.
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.
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)
|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|
|Daniela and Josephine in Phnom Penh|
|Daniela and Josephine at the Royal Palace.|
|Claire, Josephine and Abby in the Royal Palace garden.|
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||
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.
|Laguna Blanca School 2012 Peace Works Travel travelers with Aki Ra.|
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. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
|Bombed regions are highlighted in red and yellow|
Okay, but why should I care about these “duds”?
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|
Bill Morse, Director Cambodian Landmine Museum, Siem Reap
Briggs Boss, Sophomore, Thacher School
Stacy Serrette, Teacher and Dean of Student Life, Emma Willard School
Paul Rusesabagina, Real-life Hotel Rwanda hero who saved over 1200 people during the Rwandan genocide.
Shirley Hahn, Beverly Hills, California
The Santa Barbara Independent
Alex Greer, Junior, Laguna Blanca School
Kelly Bennett, history teacher, Santa Barbara Middle School
Alexandra Kall, Francis Parker School
Spencer Barr, English Teacher, Santa Barbara High School, California
Stacy Serrette, Director of Student Life, Emma Willard School
Eric Taylor, Francis Parker School, San Diego, California