Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere...Where Soul Meets Body".....The creative process and the creation of UBUZIMA ART..

"If you have come here to help me, you can go home again. But if you see my struggle as part of your own survival, then perhaps we can work together."
-Australian Aboriginal Woman.

I drop passion fruit all over my pants as i write this and comtemplate on the words of the old wise woman who spoke them. Although, I never met her, I feel like if I did we could sit and share a cup of something deliciously indigenous and vibe. She seems to have summed up my entire experience in a few simple words of her own; "My Struggle," "Your Survival," "Work together." That is what I feel when I am with my children in the community. I feel the struggle, because poverty is all around. Yet I feel a great sense of overcoming and survival as we labor together to create a master piece. And i realize, to make a master piece, to create anything that is great; one must struggle for it.

In this process I am experiencing, I feel layers and layers of tough skin shedding off and a re-birth of who I once was coming back to life. The challenges are bearable, but procrastination is not. There are just too many children who are depending on me now. I see them everyday, they run to me in the mornings speaking my name like it is an ancient chant. We draw and read books together. We play games and share songs on the weekends. They help me with my bags and I help them with their water cans. They walk me to the taxi, I walk them to school. We drink Fanta, they sing and dance traditional dances for me. My life has become surrounded by children. I feel like a King or something regal of sorts, when they are filled with joy to share their culture with me. The joy I have found in sharing with the people, I have mostly found in teaching the children health and art. I know they are learning because they give me the work they have completed which shows the lessons they have learned. It just goes to show, that anything you give a child is what they learn to do and become. If you teach them how to use a gun they will use it. If you teach them how to use an instrument, they will play it. And when you teach them the basic concepts of hygiene, health and nutrition through a medium which is fun and expressive; they will make beautiful paintings and drawings.

When I first arrived to Rwanda and was placed in my site at Nyakabanda, Nymirambo, I didn't know what to expect. Actually, i just planned not to expect anything because i was literally walking into the unknown. I know it is so human of us to try to be comfortable all the time. For once I said, I will just adjust to discomfort. That I did, it was difficult with people always stopping what they did just to stare at me. Always laughing at the way I spoke and walked. Weird men who want to marry white women assuming that I would be interested in being their wife. Street children harrassing and asking for money. No running water and no electricity when you need it. Every corner you turn, you are reminded that you are not from here and you do not fit in. You can't fit in, especially if you can't even speak the language. Those were my struggles, but as time passed on, my struggles became so mundane when I saw the children everyday. They were the one's who would show me unconditional love. They were the one's I learned the language from, and they were the one's who always uplifted my spirits when I needed to be reminded of who I am and what my purpose was.

It was the children that reminded me of why I do what I do. They are the means, the reason, and the end to successful development in any country. They reminded me of who I used to be when I was a child with a vivid imagination and dreams to do something great in the world.

According to the Reichenbach Foundation, International Society for stress studies:
Today many children of Rwanda suffer from post traumatic stress symptoms. It was within a period of 100 days between April and July in 1994, approxiamately 800,000 to one million Rwandese lost their lives to Genocide. Fighting erupted between two artificially created ethnic groups. Neighbors killed neighbors, children murdered children, teachers killed their students and husbands murdered their own wives if they were Tutsi. After the Rwandan genocide, many children lost most, if not all, of their family members. The phenomenon of numerous child-headed households (CHHs) is among the tragic results of these disruptions. The genocide has left the country with a significant number of children who have no relatives.
Many of these children have had to become the head of the house hold and their is a study that states their are over 300,000 house holds in Rwanda are CHH households. In addition to this, these children and adolescents have to cope with serious physical disabilities as well as war traumas.

Living in Rwanda, and I mean really living in Rwanda. Not being some NGO that lives on the outskirts of the people in a lavish house and drives a nice jeep handing out incentives here and there. Living with the people and seeing this for myself, I know how the genocide has affected the youth in more ways than one can imagine.I have many friends who do not have a mother or a father and can only depend on each other.It also made me see that I have no excuse to complain about what I have and what I don't have in my life. I can also relate because I grew up with my brother and sister in a very independent manner, yet we always had family relatives who took part in our development. There are many youth here who do not have any relatives and the community has become their only family, and women like my supervisor Emmerance who advocate for these orphans.

This was where the foundation and formation of the project idea UBUZIMA ARTS was created. I met a few really creative and innovative young artists from Rwanda who started their own art studio called Ivuka. The founder and director; Collin Sekajugo is Rwandese but was born in Uganda, like so many of the returned Rwandese families who had to flee during genocide. A new generation of Rwandan youth have emerged and many are trying to do their share in developing their country. Talking to them and learning their history shed light upon the struggle and tragic events that had taken place. Understanding their struggle and seeing my survival in their art has flourished into a great partnership and re-birth of ideas and activities to better serve the Rwandan community. Actually, IVUKA means re-birth. It comes from the original Rwandan language known as Kinyarwanda. It is the language that I have learned to speak in my Peace Corps training and will be the language I take with me through out my life. I know there will come a day when I meet other PCV's who served in Rwanda or Rwandese in the US. We will greet each other, we will share some words from our Rwandan family. We will have something in common that brings us together, although we all look very different.

People are still confused as to what I am, and I occassionally get UMUHINDI... which is cool. Anything but MUZUNGU please.

On another level: I have been told by many Rwandans that I am Rwandan and we come from the same origin...lol. I have to laugh at this, but I am truly honored.

I do feel connected to them coming from two ethnic groups that have experienced genocide deeply embedded in our "so called" history. My mother who is West Indian and Native American Indian, her father, American Indian from the Naragansette tribe and her mother American born, but grandmother from St. Kitts and my father's family who is Jewish, (whatever that means, i'm still confused about the concept some say religion while others say ethnicity, me Im human... don't judge me). It makes an awfully confused child, and a great display of the Idea that is America and it's melting pots of cultures. Which holds enough generations of struggle and oppression, overcoming, disaster to triumph.

Everyday I am so thankful that I love my life here in Rwanda and that for the most part, I feel confident that the people love me too. Because I truly love them. They have given me purpose, in which I am working towards a righteous goal that will benefit us as a whole and not just myself alone.

So what is development? Many say...access to resources, access to money and tangible things, skills, education, good health, gender equality....? What else? Think about it. But what I have discovered here in Rwanda's development, as I have seen it, their courage and strength to love even their enemies. There is a lot that can be learned here from very young and courageous individuals I have had the privilege to know. Everyday I realize we are not here to develop anything, in fact we are being developed by our communities (slowly by slowly) and for that I am eternally grateful.

"At the core of our development process will be what constitutes Rwanda's principal assets: it's people."-ministry of health.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"If another person looks at me and calls me MUNINI I am going to spaz"

If another person looks at me and calls me Munini, I am really going to do nothing. But, I can't help but address this issue. What is MUNINI? Munini means big, fat, round of some sort. In Rwandan culture, or perhaps African culture there is no taboo with calling people fat, big like cow, or munini and even expanding ones arms to show the roundness of ones size as an example. I guess in American culture we are so consumed with trying to fit the model size. We are obssessed with losing weight and to be big or over weight is not what we think to be an ideal. However, in Rwanda it is much of a status symbol to be a woman of weight. It means that you eat well. This I only assume. I do not really know the facts about this topic. But I find it interesting that every where I go people could easily tell me about my weight and not feel akward about it as opposed to American culture, people would be very offended if you told them to their face that they were "big like cow." In Rwanda, the cow is a very sacred animal and it is cherished in all things that relate to their culture and history. The people who owned the cattle were nobles of the land. To have owned cattle was a sign of wealth. It provided milk, meat, and skin. I was told by a historian of Rwandan culture that people consumed milk much more than food. Milk today is still very custom for the Rwandan rituals. The cow is so important that they even have a dance that is an imitation of the cow movements. For a woman to walk or move in such a manner that represents the cow is a sign of fertility and beauty. Bracelets, earrings and necklaces are sold made out of cow horns.Traditional phrases which are spoken in greetings and salutations are in essence directly translated to represent the abundance of cattle wished upon your friend or fellow neighbor. So you see, the cow is very deeply embedded in the culture and history of this country. For me to take offense to what people are saying about me would be ignorant when in fact to them it is very much a compliment. However, I still cant quite grasp the arm movements extending out to show just how big I am. I don't think I will ever get accustom to being told about my weight and yet I know I cannot escape it here. The irony of it all... I am helping a woman with her small milk business and I will be painting cows, and milk to market her product in her tiny corner store. She sells milk to support her family and her biggest challenge right now is keeping the milk fresh. She does not own a refrigerator and it is very difficult for her business to continue. These are the challenges people face here. When business is so small it is difficult to go to the bank and ask for a loan, especially when you are busy trying to run the business or your family won't eat. It is as simple as a small refrigerator to help her have a successful business and yet it is not so simple for her. The little things we take for granted daily, we do not realize just how important they could be for someone on the other side of the world. I am currently looking for loans to help her get a fridge. I am looking into organizations, but the process for this takes such a long time and is not even garanteed. If anyone would like to donate a refrigerator to this woman please get in touch with me via email. Or if anyone may have any information concerning how to get such items donated to women who run small businesses to support their families please share the info. It's funny how this story begun as me venting about constantly being told about my weight and being called "big like a cow," and now I realize it is not the most important issue anymore. All that I care for is to help other's to achieve their needs so they can live and grow and pass on the good deeds. I wish to plant such seeds and see how far they will go... So if I must suffer the torment of being MUNINI, then I guess I will have to accept it to maintain my equanimity. It can become frustrating, but what is more important? My peace of mind or proving a point? I'll let you be the judge. Peace.... Uwamahoro is what they call me and I am imbodying this name to the fullest! Or so the rastah has told me so.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Last Saturday of every month is Umuganda

Early Saturday morning I awoke to the chicken cockling. I was ready to do umuganda. What is umuganda you may ask? It is a time when everyone within the community get together to clean up the neighborhood. We work together and when we are finished, we sit underneath a shaded area provided by an advocado tree and talk about the issues of the community. As I prepared to go, I took my bucket bath, ate a few imineke, threw on my PCV T-shirt and scooted out the gate. Down the narrow, rocky path to the main road to meet my supervisor. She was already sweeping in front of the house. I did not want to look like a slacker so I immediately picked up the broom and began to sweep. Of course everyone stopped to stare at me. This is Muzungu TV.
Walking the dirt path's I lagg behind a 60 year old woman who glides down narrow, rocky, discombobulated hills effortlessly. They are so narrow one must hold on to the walls that enclose them. I feel like I am Aladdin, or Ali Babbah and the 40 thieves, exploring some new esoteric city and only this old wise woman who holds my hand is my guide. I am umwana, I am like a child and must be handled with care. But this is not a movie, as I look around-I see this is my reality and what I will face day in and day out. She is not Rafiki from the lion king. She is my supervisor and this is my community, my neighborhood. Look there, my umuturanye...neighbors. The children play in the path way alone. They call my name...Rachaelle! Rachaelle! Like they are my cheerleaders. The women dressed in bright colors and patterns greet me, smile, or laugh. Some wonder how I can speak there language. Everyone stares as I walk with Emmerance. I want to show off my language skills, so I speak in my most nonchalant Kinyarwanda. They laugh, but I am accustom to it now.

In the Umudugudu You know how we do!

So my friends, fellow PCV's Bryna, Chrissi and I made up this rhyme about our experience in Rwanda during PST (that is training) at the table during dinner one night the electricity was out. I don't think anyone will really understand it if you don't know Kinyarwanda but for what you can understand it's pretty funny. Our teacher's got a kick out of it. Especially Faustin, who was requesting a copy of it every chance he remembered to harrass me. Just kidding.

"And so hold on when there is nothing in you, except the will which says to them "Hold On."

"If" by Rudyard Kipling was a poem that has always followed me throughout my journeys across the world and back home again. It was a poem that my schitzophrenic aunt made me memorize and recite at the tender age of 9. Although, she disliked me in every way; tormented me with belligerent outbursts, criticized me for looking, speaking, acting differently and made it her priority to inform me of my social status as a bastard child, a motherless child, an ingrate and other words which are best left unspoken, nevertheless, she left me with a few lines that have become so ingrained within the very fabric of my mind. "And so hold on when there is nothing in you, except the will which says to them "hold on."" These past 3 months in Rwanda have been one of the greatest challenges of my life. I have had to learn a completely different culture, speak a completely different language and at the same time accept the fact that I may not always have the enmities in which I was accustom to back in the states. That means the simple things that we take for granted like, running water, electricity, hot showers, accessible transportation and privacy are no longer existent. Your responsibility is high and you are always on the job. You do not clock in or have a basic 9 to 5, your life is your job and you are a role-model whether you like it or not.Everything you do, every word you speak and every action you make is being watched. You are literally in a fish bowl, and yet at the same time attempting to achieve this mission that looks impossible to the naked eye, you must be able to function. Sort of what F.Scott Fitzgerald

calls: "The test of a first-rate intelligence." He coins: "is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." If that is what Fitzgerald believes, than peace corp volunteers are some geniuses. There are some of those un-informed or just cynical individuals who like to label peace corps volunteers as hippie flower children who never own up to responsibilities because they just abscond to summer camp in a different country and pass the time playing cards. But those who are in the know, clearly see that peace corps volunteers are creative thinkers, innovators, resourceful, humanitarians who are idealist thinkers who actually try to put their hands and hearts to the test and not just their thoughts. I have never met such an intelligent, caring, committed and down-to-earth group of individuals like I have found in peace corps volunteers and in the group I have had the opportunity to train with this year in Rwanda. Never have I been so honored in my life to work for an organization that I believe in and wish to see grow over the span of my life time. Never have I been so inspired, like I am when I wake up in the morning to the children who call my name and repeat the little bit of English I have taught them.
Rwanda is a developing country that faces many challenges. I have seen first hand how the school systems are run in the denser populated neighborhoods. Just the other day I could not believe what I was seeing. A teacher sending a child out of class because they were unable to pay the teachers added bonus fees. Disgusted and appalled, I accompanied my supervisor "Emmerance" the President of the women's association "Twitekubacu" to talk to the director about their errors which had taken place. The director's reasoning was that teachers are underpaid and therefore, someone must come up with the money or the children cannot attend the class. We found the children, four boys at the ages of 10 and 11 wandering around aimlessly with nothing to do. These children are orphans. They depend on the assistance of humanitarian organizations to receive a primary education. The basic fees were paid, but not the teachers added bonus, therefore, they felt this justified there reasoning for sending the children out of class. I could not believe what I was hearing and seeing, and yet, this is the day and the life for some families here. Now I understood why most of the women I interview daily do not see or cannot see any other alternatives to schooling their children, other than receiving the financial support of organizations and donors from overseas. Many people, not all, but many have a defeated mentality where they believe that they cannot do anything without getting sponsorship from some kind individuals in America. Day in and day out as I interview women living with HIV, widows, child and single mother house holds who have been directly affected by the genocide do not have any other alternatives. Rwanda alone has the highest percentage rate of orphans living in Africa. You would think that the school system would have some sensitization concerning this stigma. But at the end of the day, there are fees that need to be paid and always children that need to be taught. However, I posed this question to the director as she said to me: "Rachael you see, here in this country the teachers are very poorly underpaid." In which they are, I do not argue with that reality. I asked: "But, why would you send the children out of class, which makes them look bad in front of their peers and alienates them from the school in which they come to learn." " What are the lessons in which you are teaching them." " Oh, I see, the bottom line. That it is not your problem, it is no ones responsibility at the end of the day." The man of accounts payable proceeded "it is not my responsibility if the child does not pay, take it up with the bank," "The bank made a mistake, not me." Enraged a bit, but holding my composure "who's responsibility is it then? If it is not yours, if it is not mine, if it is not the directors?" "It is every ones responsibility not to send an orphan out of school just because your bonus fees did not come in yet." I am not justifying the negligence of the parents who have adopted the orphans and are not paying their school fees. But really, who's problem is it? Is it not a collective responsibility that we should all have to these children? Sometimes I don't know what to think about how systems are run, and yet I know nothing can be run without the amafaranga(money) to run it. What I mean is, shouldn't there be more to a system, to a company, to an organization or a government for that matter, other than money? These are some of the things I think about as I walk through my community and greet my umuturanye (neighbors). Perhaps I am just an idealist, a flower child born to two escapists of the sixties era. And yet, whatever I said had some small impact on the director and allowed the children to stay in class that day. I do not know what tomorrow brings for them.
I know that every where I turn there are needs. I have a group of 88 women who have been affected by the genocide; husbands and children have been killed, women have been raped and infected with HIV, children have lost their families and are left to face the world alone.
The fate of humanity some times can look bleak and nothing ever seems complete. In the words of Alicia Keys " I stand up and I am searching for the better part of me, I hang my head from sorrow, state of humanity, I wear it on my shoulder, Ive got to find the strength in me." How does one endure the suffering of humanity and still function in a world that is not always as just as we would want it to be? It must be the test of "a first rate intelligence" or an "S" on ones chest, I don't know. I don't know everything, and I have never proclaimed to know anything about anything. All I know is what I have experienced and that is what I try to express to the youth in my community. It is a very small thing, but as small as it is, it got me here. It made me complete college despite the lack of support from a mother and father. This small thing made me spend a whole year going through medical exams, costly dental procedures, and an application process despite the ridicule and discouragement I received. Yes I am venting, it made me pull out 4 wisdom teeth, endure hallucinating nightmares every other night that some one is suffocating me ,listen to a schitzophrenic
aunt who wished nothing but the worst for me and reminded me as often as she could that someone is going to rape me. Nothing other than "hope" kept me going, kept me dreaming. The hope that perhaps I could change something as small as it may be. That I am capable of changing something, even if it is a small thing like convincing a director that he should not kick his students out of school. Try to train a group of women who have experienced things that are beyond our understanding, that they must have hope and try to be more self-reliant and work together. Show children who have been abandoned and
always reminded of their social status that they could have a chance at changing the course of their fate from the every day reality and statistic that they face. If you can accept that the simple luxuries of hot showers and clean water may not always be at your disposal, yet you continue on your day with the same motivation and optimism. Well, you too sir can be a volunteer! Helen Keller says it best:"No Pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed an uncharted land or opened a new doorway for the human spirit."