Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lightning Strikes Twice

     On my way home from work Friday, I stopped off at a small, suburban strip mall and walked through the doors of a travel agency.  Unlike most of their regular customers, I wasn't booking a Disney cruise or a tour package through Italy.  I was there to pay for eleven round-trip tickets on Ethiopian Airlines to Rwanda.  As I handed over the check and signed the invoice, my hand shook a little. Because until that very moment, I didn't really believe that this was going to happen.  I really am going back to Africa!

     I was in second grade when I saw a National Geographic special about central Africa.  From that moment on, I dreamed of going to that part of the world.  I imagined traveling to the land of Dr. Livingston. I envied Jane Goodall with her apes.  I imagined going on safari, seeing hippos and giraffes up close.  As I got older, I learned more about the world, studying geography in college fueling a fascination for ecosystems I doubted I would ever see--jungles and savannahs and equatorial mountain ranges.  I learned about societies so different from my own with arts and customs and foods and economies that were totally unlike mine.  I never really thought that I'd actually be able to get there one day, though.

     And then I did.  Last February, I chaperoned a service-learning trip to Rwanda for high school students.  It changed my life in ways I still can't fully articulate a year later.

 Photo by Jason Marzini

     Nineteen years after the genocide, Rwanda is a study in resilience and hope.  It wasn't at all what I expected.  There is no way to adequately describe the effects of the genocide on the nation.  I cannot even describe the effects of visiting the genocide memorials on  myself.  It was as powerful and terrible an experience as I have ever had.  In more than one instance, it physically took my breath away.  So much horror.  And yet, almost every person I met spoke of forgiveness and of building a new Rwanda with a sincerity that awed me in its quiet strength.  Yes, sincere forgiveness.  Don't confuse that with justice.  Trials continue to this day.  Punishment is still meted out.  A teacher I met, who along with one sister was alone in his family to be spared during the genocide because they were away at school, explained it this way, "We don't forgive to make things better for the murderers.  We forgive for ourselves.  We forgive so we can get out of bed in the morning and carry on."

Photo by Jason Marzini

     And carry on this remarkable people does.  They marry, they raise children, they farm on every bit of land they can--most of it straight uphill on the mountains.  They study--the literacy rate has increased at an unprecedented rate over the past decade.  They start businesses.  They go to church.  They sing and dance and laugh.  Wonderfully hospitable people, it was a delight to spend time with Rwandans all around the country.    

     About the size of Maryland, Rwanda is the smallest African country.  The "Land of a Thousand Hills" is mountainous, lush, and stunningly beautiful.  It was not at all what I expected. 

     As our group toured and worked and learned, we met people from all walks of life.  We met business leaders and poor village women.  We met the brightest high school students in the country and homeless boys.    We worked together and we played together.  We cheered on the national soccer team as they ran through drills when we happened to come across them practicing at a local stadium.  We helped build a library at a boarding school for street boys. We got schooled on weeding at a coffee collaborative run entirely by women that sells to Green Mountain Coffee here in America.  We hung out at the National Univeristy of Rwanda's campus radio station and rocked out to American pop remixed to Afrobeat. We spent two of the best days of my life working in a preschool. We crashed a National Geographic photoshoot (it was the coolest. thing. ever.).  And yes, we went on a safari.

     After three incredible weeks, I returned home to my real life.  I gave family and friends the gifts I brought back.  I showed off my pictures.  I told my stories.  And then  my African adventures were just a memory. Or so I thought.
     Because of technology, I have been able to maintain ongoing correspondence with several of the people I met in Rwanda.  Several high school students email me regularly to practice their English.  Alexis Gakumba and his brilliant wife Gyslaine, the owners of the Rwandan tour company that managed everything for us in Africa, chat with me frequently. 

Photo by Jason Marzini

This November, I was delighted when I was able to open my home for a week to Alexis.  It was Alexis' first trip to America.  He was here conducting business in Vermont, but had time for some visiting.  I had the extreme pleasure of being with him when he experienced several firsts:  bowling, snow, the ocean, Christmas trees and lights, skyscrapers, burgers and fries. 

     By the time Alexis had returned home to Rwanda, I was sorely homesick for his country and his people.  I had already been approached by the high school to consider chaperoning another trip this April.  So, I spoke to my boss and bargained with my husband and children.  It was decided.  I return to Rwanda on April 2nd.  My husband and  my children are talking about when "we all go together to visit Alexis.  How about next summer when school gets out?"  And suddenly, my world has expanded to include Africa. 
    Now I'm thinking about ways to make other little girls' dreams come true.  Alexis, Gyslaine and I have been imagining ways to connect young Rwandan students and American students in a distance-learning program.  We imagine an international training program in health care or maybe in tourism (why not both?!) that gives American and Rwandan youth marketable skills and a chance to build better futures for themselves.  I think my real African adventures have just begun.


  1. Such a moving post, such an awesome thing you're doing for others and at the same time, so pleased for you that you're coming out again. I moved to South Africa 5 years ago. I always knew I could make a home here, never expected the place to grab my heart the way it has. Enjoy the prepping and planning period!

  2. Thanks! Right now we are at the stage of planning, organizing, and--gulp--fundraising that has me more than a bit overwhelmed. In two months, though, I'll be back in Africa. It haunts my dreams. It has really gotten to me.

    I would love to hear about how you uprooted yourself from what I can only assume was a proper Brit life to move to South Africa.

  3. Wow. I wish for you, a safe and fabulous trip.