Tuza Subira

Here we go, last day in Rwanda. This is very surreal. I’m feeling about a million different emotions right now, and I honestly can’t tell you how I feel about leaving. I’m so excited to see my family and friends again, but at the same time my stomach is in knots at the thought of leaving my Rwandan friends and families behind.

These past four months have been a complete rollercoaster ride. There were times when I was frustrated, angry, and sad…to an extreme extent. But there were other times where I was completely elated and hopeful and happy. I feel like I did find more of a balance between the two during the ISP period, but even so, this was an emotionally exhausting and challenging journey. This may sound cliché, but I really have learned more about myself than I ever thought I would. Throughout this time, I could see myself changing, although I know that I’ll never quite realize the extent of how much being here has affected me. I’m grateful for the deeper understanding I’ve gained of Rwanda; it’s people, culture, and political environment. Being here has made me realize that traveling is definitely going to be a big part of my future. Luckily, I’ve also confirmed that what I’m studying is actually something I want to do. I was scared that being here would completely turn me off from the idea of working in conflict resolution, but I’ve discovered that no matter how difficult or emotional it can be, it’s something that I would never allow myself to put aside. Finally, this experience could not have been what it was without the 18 other students I came here with. This was definitely a self-selecting program, and the people who were crazy enough to take a semester to study abroad in post-genocide Rwanda are definitely the ones who have made a lasting impact on me. We all have a lot of things in common, yet we were a pretty diverse group in terms of our backgrounds and the reasons we chose to come here. I couldn’t have asked for a better support network, and I’m so happy I get to bring that back with me to the US. I LOVE YOU GUYS!

So, as I reflect on my time here, I’m thinking about the aspects of Rwanda that have grown dear to me. Here is a short list of things that helped to make up those “Oh, Rwanda” moments…and things I will definitely miss about being here.

-How Rwandans interchange their L’s and their R’s when speaking English. Example: my friend Hadley was consistently called Hadrey.

-Using buckets in every facet of life, including bathing, laundry, and cooking

-Riding motos

-Knowing enough Kinyarwanda to carry out a simple conversation

-Having cranes as pets (Chantal & Ashanti)

-When Rwandans say “Sorry! Sorry!” whenever you trip or fall or have anything remotely uncomfortable happen to you, regardless of whether or not it was their fault

-Baby feet sticking out behind mothers backs

-Marriage proposals 24/7

-Saying “sawa sawa”. Also, the song Sawa Sawa (shhhh)

-Trivia night at Sole Luna, African Bagel Company, and Bourbon Coffee (mzungu hangout spots that were simultaneously very needed but strange escapes from Rwanda)

-Vegetable samosas

-Pili pili. I’m proud to say that my tolerance for spice has increased ten-fold on this trip, and I really liked spicy food before I came here, so that’s saying something

-The climb up Mount Kigali to my homestay and the views of the city from it

-Every single person calling me “SISTA, SISTA!”

-Avocado and chapatti all the time


-The buses (taxis), especially the tricked out Nyamirambo taxis (the Justin Bieber one was my favorite, hands down)

-“Slowly by slowly”

-How when it rains the world stops functioning

-Eating Cadbury chocolate like it’s my job

-Not shaving for unacceptable amounts of time, but being OK with that

-12 hours of consistent sunlight

-Fresh mango juice

-Mosquito nets

-The hills

-Never having clean feet. Also, having ridiculous tan lines on our feet from sandals

-This one is from Uganda: Saying every sentence like a question. Example: “And then it came time for what? For the goat to pay.”

-Kimironko market, fabric, Josephine, fresh fruit and veggies (so cheap, too)

-Always waking up before 7

-Rwandan buffets. Making mountains on our plates like real Rwandese and finishing them no problem

I’m sure there are a lot more that I won’t even realize until I’m home. Of course, what I’m going to miss most are the people. My peers, professors, homestay families, friends, and everyone else have given so much meaning to Rwanda for me. Tuza subira (see you later), my friends, I will be back one day. For those of you who have been reading my blog, thanks for following along and I can’t wait to tell you more about it in person soon. For the last time from Rwanda, peace and blessins’.

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Adventure Awaits!

Wow, what an incredible last week in Rwanda it’s been. I’m back in Kigali after my adventures and it’s surreal that I leave in only two days. Before I do a wrap up blog post, I think I just need to fill you in on my week.

Sunday was a very strange and long day. As I said earlier, the first group left for the US. As soon as it came time for the first goodbye, the tears were already starting to flow. I knew I was going to be sad to watch everyone leave, but I never thought I would get as emotional as I did. I went to the airport with one of my friends, Thalie, and I couldn’t believe that that would be me in only a week. For those of us who were still around, we had a final lunch at our favorite buffet near school, Danico. The rest of Sunday we were all just waiting around the office for everyone to leave. The mood was really blah and we tried to cheer ourselves up by playing cards and listening to music. But, finally, it was time for the gorilla trekkers to head to Nyabugogo bus station to catch the bus to Musanze. We said goodbye to four out of the five others that left on Sunday evening, and then we walked out of the office puffy eyed and tired.

There were 8 of us that decided to go gorilla trekking, and this is what I’ve been looking forward to the most all semester. As most of you know, I’m pretty crazy obsessed with primates, gorillas especially. And these gorillas that live in the jungles of Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo are some of the last silverbacks in the world. So, naturally, I was oozing with excitement. We arrived in Musanze and found our cheap guesthouse. It was a little sketchy, but the price was worth it. After having an early buffet we all crashed on our very uncomfortably thin mattresses. We woke up at 5 AM the next morning and were immediately greeted by the church choir next door. Really? 5 AM on a Monday? But, no matter, we had to meet our truck anyways. We went outside and there was our 4×4 Land Cruiser waiting for us, complete with a jolly Rwandan driver. We piled into the benched seats in back and before we knew it we were the first ones to arrive at Volcanoes National Park. This park is SO beautiful. It’s made up of 5 volcanoes, known as the Virunga Massive, which cross the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. After checking in, we got to sit down in a big thatched hut drinking our warm African tea and coffee. Before long, the traditional Intore dancers started to perform as about 50 other people filed into the hut. 7 AM came and went, and finally our driver ushered us over to our gorilla guide. We all wanted to do a more challenging hike, which meant that we were hoping to see the Sussa group (made up of 30 or more gorillas) or the 2 others that were just below the Sussa difficulty level. Our guide, Francis, told us we would be seeing the Amahoro group. It seems like destiny, really. Amohoro means peace in Kinyarwanda, and this gorilla family was named this because they were discovered just after the genocide. Also, the group is made up of 19 gorillas. Here I am on a study abroad program that has a theme of peacebuilding and I’m studying with 18 other students. Coincidence? I think not.

We all got in our truck again to drive to the trailhead, which was about 30 minutes down a very rocky road. Amahoro group lives on one of the volcanoes, Bisoke (the one that I summited the day after!). In order to get to the park entrance, we had to walk through a small village and lots of agricultural fields. We finally got to the park, where we entered escorted by a soldier (with his rifle, of course) and a second, assistant guide who had a machete to clear any really dense patches on the path. The hike itself wasn’t too difficult, but it was different from any hike I’ve ever done before. We trudged through a foot of mud and crawled under bamboo. After about an hour and a half, we approached the spot where the gorillas were. There were about 5 gorilla trackers that were stationed outside of the area, and they told us to get our cameras but leave everything else. We quietly followed our guide into the forest. Within a few feet, we spotted the first gorilla, one of the three silverbacks in the group. He sat there contentedly munching away at his mid-morning meal. He took no notice of us, or at least he didn’t care enough to look up from his food. We were so close! Probably less than 10 feet away! After snapping our first photos, our guide led us on where the rest of the group was. My friend Elise and I were the last ones in the line, and as we were making our way through the bush we heard the gorillas up ahead, and they sounded like they were fighting. The noises were terrifying, and I thought, hey, if this isn’t a good day for them maybe we should turn back. But our guide led us on. All of a sudden, Elise and I heard the same noise, and before we turned around I already knew what it was, the same silverback we were just watching. He was coming down the path right towards us, and nobody else in our group had noticed, so they continued on. We tried to whisper to catch their attention, but no luck. Elise and I silently freak out, but I led us off to the side of the path and we held our breath as the gorilla brushed past us. That was, hands down, one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences of my life. After the gorilla passed us, Elise and I had some trouble finding our group, and we didn’t want to call out to them because you’re supposed to whisper around the gorillas. Luckily, we made our way to the others where they were in a clearing under some trees watching the rest of the gorillas.

I won’t go into every detail, but the hour we spent with the gorillas was one of the best of my life. We got to see all 3 silverbacks, including the chief, some blackbacks, a female and her baby, and a few juvenile gorillas (think: angsty tween). The juveniles played, wrestled, swung from branches, and tried to approach us. The blackbacks also wanted to play, with us mostly. Which resulted in a couple of them breaking tree branches over our heads and two of them charging us. Elise was grabbed twice by blackbacks. The first time she nearly got lifted off her feet as he ran by and grabbed her pants, and the second time he actually grabbed a chunk of her leg and left bruises!! It was really scary, but the guides had everything under control. They would approach the gorillas and grunt and break tree branches in front of them so that they would back away from us. The gorillas responded by pounding their chests and hitting their fists against the ground to show that this was their territory, not ours. Another amazing, yet calmer, moment came when we saw the female gorilla breastfeeding her baby. It’s really amazing how similar gorillas are to humans. The female was so much more docile than the males, but she was watching us almost the whole time. Our hour was up before we knew it, and we left just after an angry blackback charged, apparently because we weren’t letting him take his nap. I was able to get some photos, but I’ll be honest, they’re pretty bad. First, we weren’t allowed to use flash (for obvious reasons) and it was really dark in the clearing. Second, my hands were shaking uncontrollably from fear and excitement, so I couldn’t hold the camera still. So basically what I’m saying is, you should definitely see these gorillas for yourself if you ever get the opportunity. It was expensive to get the permit, but it’s worth every penny, trust me. I’ve never had such a direct encounter with nature before, and it makes me wonder why I’m not on the path to become the next Jane Goodall…

The following day Alicia and I continued our adventures and climbed Bisoke Volcano, where we saw the gorillas the day before. We had to say goodbye to Hannah and Elise in the morning (more tears), but we were quickly distracted by the task ahead of us. We were a group of six: me, Alicia, Chris (a German fellow), Jessica & Luke (an Australian couple) and Brie (a junior at North Central College in Naperville, IL…small world!). We had 3 guides and we were also escorted by about 4 or 5 military men. We thought this was a little excessive when we started, but it turns out we pretty much needed all of them. If I thought the day before was muddy, it was nothing compared to that day. More mud that you could ever imagine. And this was much more jungle-y than the day before, lots of canopy trees and volcanic rock. This hike was a lot more strenuous than the day before, and when we finally reached a short resting point and we were all panting, our guide says, “And now the real hiking begins!” At this point we had about 800 meters to the summit, and we were at the turn off point where you can go and see Dian Fossey’s grave (it’s in a gorilla graveyard!). The hike was really steep, we were slipping everywhere, the altitude was making us a bit dizzy, and my vertically challenged self had some trouble making those big steps up rocks. Our group split up into about 3 smaller ones based on everyone’s fitness. Alicia and I were the second and third ones to reach the crater lake at the top, which was between 10,500 and 11,000 feet I think. It was gorgeous up there, and we just flopped down and ate our lunch in the sun. Leave it to the German to have cheese up there…I was quite grateful for that. Clouds starting rolling over the lake, and our guides quickly gathered us up and told us we had to start the descent because it was getting dark. So, I followed the guides and scrambled down with them as we got engulfed in misty clouds. You couldn’t even see a few feet in front of you, then all of a sudden the heavens opened up and it was pouring rain. It was already muddy on the way up, so you can’t even imagine what it was like going down. It felt like we were hiking down a muddy waterfall. Correction: not hiking, sliding. At this point we split up again and every hiker pretty much had his own guide. I was with one of the military men and we led the group down. I was sliding and falling and slipping and grabbing onto thorny bushes for support and getting stung by the stinging nettles. It was hard and my legs were burning the entire time, but it was so much fun. It was only slightly uncomfortable when I fell into my guide a few times and got hit with the rifle he was carrying. But we finally made it to the Dian Fossey turnoff point again, and we waited as one by one everyone emerged from the jungle completely covered in mud. My favorite was when Alicia came out of the trees with war paint (mud) under her eyes. We had some laughs and took a few pictures before finishing the muddy hike. By the time we reached our cars it was 5 PM and we had left at 8 AM. That was the fullest day of hiking I’ve ever done, and also the most rewarding. It wasn’t an incredibly tall volcano, but considering the amount I’ve worked out these past few months (close to nothing), I don’t think I did too shabby.

That night we went to Gisenyi, another town on Lake Kivu, to relax for a couple of days before heading back to Kigali. I don’t have enough time to write about it now, so hopefully I’ll write one more post before I leave. If not, I’ll definitely put one up as soon as I get home. I can’t believe my semester is finally coming to an end. It’s been an unreal journey, and I can’t wait to tell you all more about it in person. Love and see you soon!

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Time, it is a flyin’

My study abroad program officially ends tomorrow. WHAT. How did that happen? About half of the group jumps on a plane to the US tomorrow, and I can’t believe it.

Our program ended with a wonderful, relaxing week in Kibuye, a lovely town that sits on Lake Kivu. The hotel was beautiful; we stayed in little villas next to the water, AND THERE WERE HOT SHOWERS. The first afternoon I got there I decided to go on a walk next to the lake with a few other girls. We split up as we were walking, and then my friend Betsy and I decided to turn around because the sky was getting pretty, pretty, pretty ominous. As we power-walked back, we passed the usual little screaming kids who yell, “Give me money!” Despite how annoying this gets, one of the kids we walked by almost convinced me to give him money. He did a little dance and asked for it in a voice that sounded like Mufasa…I couldn’t stop laughing. Anyways, Betsy and I continued as the storm finally caught up with us. We were about 5 minutes away from our hotel when it started pouring. We ran and slipped down the dirt path, but we didn’t make it to shelter quick enough and we were completely drenched. I didn’t mind too much, though, because it was a beautiful rain.

The next day we started our ISP presentations. It was pretty laid back, and I was really excited to hear what kind of work everyone had been doing for the past month. People did some pretty amazing things, and some of the other research included microfinance, music, special needs education, women in local government, and survivor assistance, to name a few. I really want to read the other ISPs now, because a 10-minute presentation was only a preview of all of the work that people did. Both Tuesday and Wednesday mornings were spent doing presentations, and we had the afternoons free. On Tuesday we sat down by the lake, read books, played cards, and generally just hung out. Every single afternoon we were in Kibuye it rained, so we cozied up with some African tea and watched the storm on the lake. The afternoons were pretty lazy, but I loved being able to do nothing for once. Really, the only other thing I did was to go on another walk with a couple of friends around Kibuye. It’s a cute little town, but it doesn’t really have anything in it. But every view is so beautiful. The lake is a million different colors of blue and you can see the mountains of Congo in the distance. At the end of our walk one of the best moments of my trip happened. Three little kids started following us, and one of them was walking so close to me he kept bumping my side. They were giggling so much, and we were just smiling at them. Since they were having such a good time, I decided to have a little fun. I put on my best monster face, turned around, and went “RAWR!” The shock on their faces was priceless; they screamed but then immediately started laughing uncontrollably. Then I started doing some funny walks with them, and they totally dug it. Finally, this little adventure ended when the 3 kids started serenaded us with the popular African song called Bella. They knew every lyric, and even though we only knew the chorus, we sang along with them and we all danced down the streets as the sun went down. They finally decided they should turn back home, and we waved goodbye to those little rascals.

The other main thing that we did this week was talk about our reentry into the US. We’ve already had a lot of conversations about this, especially about all of the mixed emotions we’re feeling. It was good to get everything out and understand that we’re all in the same boat. I think we’re all simultaneously terrified and very excited to go back. I’m just happy that I have one more week here. It seems crazy that people are leaving just hours after the program ends. I need some time to relax, explore, and enjoy the beauty of Rwanda. I’m going to be really sad when people start leaving and I’m still here. Rwanda means so much to me because of the experiences I’ve shared with the other people on my program, and I’m going to be sad to see them go, especially since we all live in different places in the US. But, not to fear, we’re already planning all of the reunions we’re going to have. And thank the lawd that Betsy is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from me in Minnesota.

So, it will be an emotional couple of days saying goodbye to everyone. BUT…..I GET TO SEE GORILLAS IN TWO DAYS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I’m about to live the dream. Everyone thinks I’m going to get adopted into the gorilla family and live the rest of my life swinging in trees. Not saying that that wouldn’t be right up my alley, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing family and friends back home. So, I’m going to enjoy my week of adventure and travel and I’ll post again next weekend before I leave. Love to everyone here and back home, and safe travels, SITers!

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Merry Happy

I am currently feeling so happy and fulfilled and accomplished and light. First of all, I’M OFFICIALLY DONE WITH MY ISP!!! WOOO! I printed and bound my 40 pages this morning, and it felt OH SO GOOD. I never stressed about it too much, but every day this week has been spent writing for hours and hours and my brain is pretty tired. I’m pretty happy about my final paper, even though 4 weeks was definitely not enough time to complete all the research I wanted to do. All the more reason to come back, I s’pose…

Besides the ISP, I’ve had a pretty fantastic past couple of days. Even when I was writing, I was usually in a comfy cozy café eating delicious treats and drinking fresh mango juice. So that wasn’t too shabby. Also, we had some guests over for dinner this week. On Wednesday night we had some kids over who are applying to colleges in the US. They’re part of a program called Bridge2Rwanda Scholars. I’ve been helping out at their prep center the past few weeks, editing essays and mostly just hanging out. These are the coolest kids ever. They’re so smart and pretty hilarious. It’s funny how American they seem, actually. They use our slang and a couple of them even have accents that sound a little too familiar. I’m so happy I got the chance to meet this group, and I really hope that most of them are able to come to the US for college. They’re all smart enough, but the money is obviously an obstacle. There’s even one boy applying to Carleton, and I would be ecstatic if he ended up coming to good ol’ Northfield, Minnesota.

On Thursday night we had two of our program staff over for dinner, Selena and Vestine. These ladies are the BEST. Selena is Ugandan, and she’s a blast. She’s pretty quiet, which is very deceiving because in reality she’s all about fun and partying, and she has a great sense of humor. Vestine watches over us like a mother hen; she’s very wholesome and loves to give us big hugs. She’s so sweet, and some of her hobbies include playing the guitar and praying. We made them pizza for dinner, and I think they loved it. We also had cake with real chocolate frosting for dessert. Man, I’m going to miss our family dinners.

Friday turned out to be another pretty spectacular day, despite the fact that we all planned to finish our ISPs by Saturday. In the morning I went to Kimironko market with a couple of friends. Kimironko is one of the biggest markets in Kigali. It has EVERYTHING. Food, kitchen stuff, clothes, shoes, trinkets, crafts, and fabric. Glorious, glorious fabric! I’ve become somewhat addicted to buying Rwandan fabric and making clothes out of it. Oops. But it’s so hard to resist the temptation of getting a beautiful one-of-a-kind piece made at a really low price. Needless to say, on Friday I was picking up my last (I promise this time!) round of clothes. I got a wrap skirt and a dress made, both out of the same fabric but in different colors (blue and red). Let me explain this process in a little more detail to paint a better picture of what it’s like to get clothes made at a market. First, we are loyal customers to a lovely lady named Josephine who sells us fabric at really good prices. Josephine is so sweet and she understands that we’re students and don’t have a lot of money so she bargains for us hardcore. Then, Josephine calls one of her tailors over to come and take our measurements. We haphazardly draw a picture of what we want the clothes to look like (I have never been successful at this—good to know that fashion design is not in my future), then the tailors take our measurements. During this process Josephine is always in the background, giving her advice and telling us how stylish we are (God bless the girl). When we have clothes to pick up, we get to climb onto Josephine’s fabric table and strip down. Literally. One of us has to hold a piece of fabric up as a curtain so that the hundreds of people in the market don’t stare at the half-naked muzungu that has suddenly appeared on display. On Friday, I was trying my red dress on and it fit perfectly. I was so happy with it and glad that I didn’t have to make any alterations. But then, as I tried to get it off, I ran into some difficulties. You know that feeling of claustrophobia when you’re in a dressing room and you barely squeeze something on then you go to take it off and you get really stuck and start hyperventilating and imagine the terrible scenarios of you having to walk out into the store with a piece of clothing halfway off your body but covering your face so you really can’t see anything and then you figure out the only way to get out of the clothes would be to cut them? Yeah, it was kind of like that. Ok, it wasn’t so dramatic. But I could NOT get that dress off the top of my body. My arms were awkwardly stuck at strange angles above my head and I started freaking out a bit and laughing hysterically at the same time. My friend Elise tried to help me shimmy out a little further, but it was just getting ridiculous. Then Josephine took charge, told me to please stop laughing, and gracefully pulled that thing off of me. So, they did end up making an alteration…they extended the zipper and now I can get dressed by myself, thank you very much. While we were waiting for our clothes to get altered, Betsy, Elise, and I just sat on the fabric table chatting with Josephine. She showed us pictures of her cute little boys, she talked to us about Rwandan culture (“if you wear a dress this short in Rwanda, you will get beaten”), and, mostly, she talked about saving my soul in the name of Jesus Christ HALLELUJAH! But really, I think Josephine wants to save me. The week beforehand we had come to the market on a Sunday, and she promptly asked us “What? You did not go to church?” I told her no, and then she asked in her sweet disposition if I was a Christian and if I even believed in God. Not wanting to hurt her feelings, I came up with, “My family is Jewish!” She wasn’t going to let me off that easy, though. On Friday, she explained to me about a philosophy course she took. She said she read a book about a girl who lost her faith and then by the end she found God. Voilà! Josephine assured me that the same would happen to me, and not to worry because she would make me see the Christian way. As much as I love Josephine, I’m not so sure I’ll be able to live up to her expectations in that regard.

The day continued to be great. After the market, we hit up the only bakery that we know of in Kigali that serves delicious banana bread. I got two pieces. I figured that I deserved it for all the hard work I was doing on my ISP. After a semi-productive day of essay writing at a café, I came home and talked with the Treats & Snoozes fam about our previously planned adventure up Mount Kigali. We had wanted to hike up there to watch the sunset while enjoying some wine and cheese. But, by the time we got home it was already getting late and we were pooped. So, we brought the wine, cheese, and chocolate up to our balcony instead. It was lovely, Kigali lit up as the call to prayer rang out from the nearest mosque. I’ll miss that beautiful sound. We sat there for a couple of hours talking about lots of good stuff. Mostly about going back home and how we feel about it. It’s going to be difficult to explain this experience. When someone asks me, “How was your time in Rwanda?” I think we decided that the best response would be “Do you want the short answer or do you want to hear the truth?” And the latter will take some time, and it’s not all peachy and roses and cute bunnies. But I’m excited to share things with everyone back home that I haven’t been able to yet. And I would say that I haven’t talked about 70% of my experience. And it’s not just the experiences; it’s how these experiences have shaped me. Anyways, it’s pretty daunting at times, but overall I’m really excited to show this part of me to the people who are so important in my life back home.

Last night we all stayed up to continue working on our ISPs because we all wanted to finish by this morning. It was great as one by one, slowly by slowly, we finished! Once we were all done we turned up the music and jumped around a bit. Then, we rewarded ourselves by going to African Bagel Company and gorging on donuts and bagles. YUM. After, I snuggled in the grass and dozed in and out of my food coma while a nice breeze tickled my face. Yes, it was that good. After bagels, we went to town to print and bind our papers and then rewarded ourselves some more by going SHOPPING. There is a fantastic craft store in town. Really, it’s more of a bazaar. I had so much fun spending the rest of my ISP stipend on presents. Which, I can assure you, will be wonderful.

The day is winding down, and we’re about to eat our last dinner as a Treats & Snoozes family. It smells delicious, as per usual. I’ll miss living in this house. Beautiful place, beautiful people. But I’m also SO EXCITED for Kibuye and GORILLA TREKKING OHMYGOD. This afternoon I talked to a man who went in March, and I got a little teary thinking about my hour among the gorillas. After the hike of “trudging through mud and climbing up sheer rock faces and swinging through trees” (Ok, maybe he exaggerated, BUT STILL) you get really close to the gorillas and get to stay there with them for an hour, just watching and getting to be part of their environment. This is literally going to be a dream come true. But, until then, I want to enjoy the rest of my time here. Now that we don’t have any work left (presentation, schmesentation) it kind of feels like I’m on vacation. And I think I’m OK with that. I probably won’t bring my computer to Kibuye, so I’ll update again next weekend before the trek. Until then, peace and love, my friends, peace and love.

Oh, and for those of you that don’t understand the name of my house (Treats and Snoozes), kindly watch the sequel to Marcel the Shell on youtube.

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Giving Thanks

1. I’m thankful for an entirely vegetarian Thanksgiving.

Lucky for me, I live in a house with two other vegetarians who love to cook. Even though we have one stove with 3 functioning burners, a small oven, and a really small refrigerator, this may have been one of the most extravagant Thanksgivings that I’ve been a part of. We had stuffing, mashed potatoes, twice-baked potatoes, chickpea salad, cabbage salad, carrot soufflé, 2 types of bread, and smorgasbord of appetizers (guacamole, mango salsa, chapatti, spinach balls, etc). And we had dessert. Oh boy did we have dessert. 6 pies, cookies, and fruit salad. YUM.

2.I’m thankful I got to share this day with the people who have been with me over the past three months, my fellow SITers.

As one person put it, it’s strange to think that one year ago none of us knew one another. Now, we’ve been through this crazy, emotionally exhausting, eye-opening journey together and I can’t imagine my life without them. They have been my shoulder to cry on and my comic relief. They have kept me sane through spontaneous dance parties, countless bars of Cadbury chocolate, and an appreciation of awkward encounters with our dear Rwandese. I’m sad that we’re all going to be in different places when we go back to the States, but I know that I’ll always be able to count on these biddies for anything and everything, no matter where we are.

3. I’m thankful for family.

First, I’m thankful to my family in the US. You have given me the opportunity to explore the world, and you’ve supported me through the entire thing. It hasn’t been easy to be so far apart, but I’m so grateful for the chances I’ve gotten to learn and grow this year. I can always count on you guys to make me feel better, even when there’s an ocean between us, and the positive energy you send my way really does make a difference. And I’m thankful for the copious amounts of food that you will feed me upon my return, because, yes, I already know that’s how it’s going to go down. Second, I’m thankful for my Rwandan families. I’ve been so lucky to get to know these intelligent, strong, and hilarious Rwandans. They have taught me so much, about myself and Rwanda, and I will forever carry their stories with me.

With my host sisters, Micheline and Rosine, on Thanksgiving

4. I’m thankful for warm showers.

Self-explanatory. I have not felt properly clean for 3 months. My first warm shower (with water falling from the sky!) upon my return will be heavenly.

5. I’m thankful for the beauty in this world.

A sunrise over the hills of Kigali. A run through Carleton’s arboretum. The artists who perform, paint, and create upon the hill of Montmartre. Red Rocks, CO. The Art Institute of Chicago. The crisp breezes and colorful leaves of autumn (and I’m thankful I live in a place that actually has this season).

6. I’m thankful for my education.

The last time I was at Carleton it was a snowy tundra. Believe it or not, I’m crazy excited to go back to said tundra. I’m so lucky that a) I have the opportunity to go to college b) I love my professors and peers c) I’m challenged academically and learning a ton and d) Carleton is just as quirky as I am.

N’ibindi. (Kinyarwanda word for “and more”)

My time here is winding down. In just over three weeks I’ll be landing at O’Hare (don’t tell anyone in my house I said that–we’ve outlawed countdowns here). I’ll be honest–the prospect of leaving is overwhelming. I think that the bigger culture shock will happen when I get back, and I’m nervous that I won’t be able to fully explain everything that I’ve done, seen, and learned here. So, in advance, I ask you to be patient with me. But until that happens, I still have a research paper to write, a week of R&R in Kibuye, and a day of frolicking with mountain gorillas!

Kibuye, Rwanda

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Reporting from the field

Today I took my first trip outside of Kigali to conduct research for my ISP. I went to the Mutobo Demobilization Center, which is part of the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission in the northern province. I’ve been working closely with this commission and they’ve been incredibly helpful in setting up interviews for me so that I can get more information about the reintegration process of ex-combatants who have recently returned to Rwanda.

Learning about the process for this population covers a good amount of my research, as I want to look at how the language switch has affected different types of returnees such as civilians, combatants, returnees from Uganda, DRC, Tanzania, Burundi, etc.  You get my drift. So this commission gave me access to former combatants, and all of the ones I spoke to have returned from DRC. I have yet to get access to civilian returnees. I’m breaking through, slowly by slowly as they say, but still frustrated about the bureaucracy of the UN.

So my day started when I left my house at 7 AM. I got to Nybugogo, the national taxi park just down the street from my house, to meet my translator and hop on a bus to the north. I had never met my translator, but my friends had used him before and his English sounded pretty good on the phone, so I was confident that he would be reliable. And he was. Thanks to his Kinyarwanda, we were able to figure out what bus to take that would drop us off right in front of the center in Mutobo. We were cruising along, about 20 minutes outside of Kigali, when our bus broke down. A huge cloud of black smoke billowed up right outside of my window, and we had to wait about 30 minutes for another bus to come and pick us up. I wasn’t too peeved, because this is Africa. And people function on Africa time. And even though I told the man at the center that I would be there at 10 AM and I clearly wouldn’t make it in time, it was nta kibazo (no problem). The bus came and we were on our way again.

I love driving through Rwanda. The landscape is so beautiful. The hills continued to make my jaw drop every time our bus turned another corner and the light flooded the landscape. Maybe my jaw was also dropping because I was a tidge freaked out by our chauffer’s driving. Big bus, fast driving, super curvy roads on hillsides…you get the picture. But that’s how all of the drivers are here so I just go with the flow. Because of these winding roads, a little kid two rows back started puking about an hour later. I don’t blame the kid, but it wasn’t the most pleasant sound. I was just grateful that there was no way his little 4 year old body could projectile that vomit all the way over to me.

Around 10:30, Sam (my translator) and I reached Mutobo. The center is right off of the main road, and it’s surrounded by gardens and volcanoes. Right away I met Jean-Marie, the deputy head of the demobilization center. We all sat down in his office so that I could interview him first. I got a condensed History of Rwanda lesson, despite the fact that I had just told Jean-Marie that I have been studying Rwanda for the past 3 months. Finally, I got to ask the questions that I had and I got a lot of information about the process of reintegration for this group. Most of these soldiers who come back have been out of Rwanda since 1994, so the goal of the center is to work on the psychological process of reentry. The physical disarmament happens at the Congo border, and during the 3 months that they stay in the Demobilization Center the ex-combats undergo a civic education/skills training program that helps them understand contemporary Rwanda. Oh, and I probably should have mentioned that these people were part of the FAR, RDF, or FDLR or other rebel groups (Google those for more info).  This commission is a government agency, so I got a lot of information that I already had, but it was in a lot greater detail than I had received before.  Even though I got a very idealistic perspective for a lot of the interview, I feel like I also got truthful answers.

Next, I got to talk to a group of former combatants. It’s always strange being an outsider in these kinds of places. I felt the same way when we visited TIG and even the reconciliation village. People like to put on a bit of a show for the muzungu. Most of the time it’s nothing dramatic, people just want to show us the work that they’re doing and hope that we become ambassadors for them when we return home. Sometimes, it can be kind of strange, though. For example: Sam and I followed Jean-Marie into the building where the men (and women, although they’re more rare) take classes and have lectures. The man called out to the guys who were spending their free time watching TV and they immediately ran and lined up in a row. It was like the von Trapp children, minus the individual whistle calls. They stood there attentively while they were told who I was, that I would like to talk to them, etc. So about 7 men sat down with me and Sam and we started the interview.

At first, nobody really wanted to talk. Understandable. Who am I to be asking them these personal questions? But after about 2 or 3 started opening up, the rest followed suit as we got to know each other a little better. I’m also really thankful for my 6 week Kinyarwanda course. I don’t know much, but I think my short introduction in Kinyarwanda made them feel a little more comfortable. I got answers to a lot of questions I have been forming over the past couple of weeks. I’m researching the effect of the switch on this population, but this was actually the first time I got to talk TO the people I’m researching. I really hope I get the opportunity to talk to civilian returnees, because I’m starting to see that there is a huge gap in the services they receive compared to the ex-combats. It kind of makes sense that the government is focused on repatriating people who are fighting them; it reduces regional security threats. But, the ex-combats make up a much smaller portion of returnees than civilians. SO LET ME TALK TO THE CIVILIANS ALREADY (COUGH COUGH). Anyways, I really enjoyed talking to the men at the center. We were all laughing by the end (oh and Jane and Kate—they told me to tell you hello!).

After a few more bus rides, I made it home to Kigali at about 4:30. I’m really exhausted, but I’m happy I got the chance to go to Mutobo. I wish that this research project was longer than 4 weeks, because that’s really not enough time to do everything that I want to, like going to the 2 transit centers for refugees in Rwanda. But, I guess it just gives me an excuse to come back in the future. Another great thing about my field trip today—I was really close to Volcanoes National Park (where I get to see the gorillas!) and I passed so many gorilla signs and statues that I got giddy just thinking about December 12 (trekking day). Oh, and my newest plan, hike up a volcano on the 13th.

Posted in ISP, Kigali | 2 Comments

Our house is a very, very, very fine house.

Alas, freedom! The Independent Study Project has begun and I have moved into my new house in Nykabanda. On Saturday morning I said goodbye to my host family (which included some loving slap-to-the-face goodbyes), packed up my bags, and trekked down Mount Kigali to my new home. This house is wonderful. It is 2 stories with 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a kitchen (with an oven and stove!), and balconies. It’s also fully furnished. We got a pretty sweet deal, I’d say. Especially since the house is pink and orange. And we have a pet crane that runs around the house.

It feels a little strange to be living in a house with only Americans. It’s like we’re in our own little bubble. We’re eating the food that we want, we get to shower when we want (we have water that falls from the sky!), we can take naps, we can sing and dance around the house, and, best of all, we can set our own schedules. It almost feels like this is too fun to be allowed. Here is a little sample of what my days are like in this new house:

7:30-8 wake up

8 do some abs/yoga

9 eat breakfast

10 shower

10:30-1ish do some research, go to the market to get food

1 eat lunch

afternoons: have interviews/appointments/do ISP research

6-7 make dinner together

7-8 have a nice, wholesome family dinner

nights: read, have deep conversations about the meaning of life, stay up too late talking and laughing and singing along to Rent songs

It’s so nice to have a place to come home to where I can be myself and don’t have to worry about language barriers and having to eat more food than I can handle. And I’ll definitely still visit my host family as they’re only about a 35-minute walk away from me.

Now here are some more details about my ISP: My final research project will be looking at the effect of the language switch (Rwanda from a francophone to an anglophone country) on the returnee population in Rwanda. I will be looking at both former refugees who are considered ex-combatants and civilians. I have already conducted 4 interviews with different professionals who work with refugees. Through the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, I’ve been able to learn about how ex-combatants, mostly from DRC, are reintegrated into society. I will have the opportunity early next week to travel to the northern province, Musonzi, to the Mutobo Demobilization Center, where I will interview the center manager as well as former combatants.  I have also spoken with representatives in the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMAR) about the government’s role in civilian reintegration. Hopefully, this contact will help me get entry into UNHCR, which is definitely the most difficult and bureaucratic system that I’ve attempted to deal with. Ideally, I will be able to visit a UNHCR transit center to interview a group of recently returned Rwandese civilians. I’m still in the very early stages of all of this, but so far, so good. Once I gather all this information…all I have to do is write a 30-page paper!

Basically, this month is really fun, and it’s nice that we all get to do research on topics that are interesting to each of us. Also, it’s great that a lot of people in my house like to cook and bake. So far, we’ve already made French toast, stir fry, grilled cheese, this puff pastry/Arabic dish, and brownies. And as I’m typing this there is mango bread being made and we have plans to make homemade soup for dinner. YUM. It’s also convenient that 3 out of the 4 vegetarians on my program are living in the same house as me. If we’re not eating food, we’re talking about it. It’s fantastic.

Here’s a picture of the lovely house. Strange to think that I’m living in this tropical vacation home while it’s already snowing back in the US……

Posted in Kigali | 2 Comments