In conclusion...

Greetings! This year, I opted not to post at all during the course. I've now been back in the US a little over two weeks and have wrapped up most course-related tasks - and decided that I could now offer some of my own thoughts.

First, this group of students was pretty darn spectacular and for that I'm profoundly thankful. Second, my staff colleague, Caroline Hilk, was fantastic. I can't fathom doing this work without another non-student along. Caroline, thank you, thank you, thank you - for everything including your photos! Though he may never see this, I want to publicly thank our guide, Yvan. He remains as amazing as ever.

This course was a little longer than that offered in 2012. Those who went gorilla trekking visited all three of the current national parks in Rwanda; others visited two. We visited all five provinces. In retrospect, I think we spent a bit too much time moving about. But, then, we also had terrific experiences everywhere we traveled.

In 2014, when I traveled to Rwanda alone, I met with my colleague Kazu Sasaki at the Protestant Institute of Arts and Social Sciences (PIASS). At that point I just wanted to learn more about what he was doing with the Peace and Conflict Studies program. Then I got this wild idea. How about a workshop with Hamline and PIASS students? Fortunately, as a result of my Fall 2014 First Year Seminar, I met three outstanding students who were willing to take this on. Sadly, one of them was unable to join us. But, Marissa and Tess remained and did terrific work. On Saturday, 4 June - as you can read here and here - we spent the day with the PIASS Peace Club. It's safe to say that the day exceeded all expectations. Why? Students were able to have one-to-one and small group conversations that would never have happened in a formal setting; e.g., a meeting with an NGO. And, the PIASS students were incredibly open about their thoughts, experiences, and questions. And, not just with regard to the genocide and, for example, issues surrounding Rwandan ethnic identities. Why, for example, do we in the US use the term "African-American" when we have no idea whether someone is of African descent? Take it from there. It was nothing short of fantastic. It was one of those experiences that you dare not try to replicate. I could give my own blow-by-blow debrief of the rest of the course. I'll spare you. In short, it was exhausting and wonderful.

Okay, just a couple of snapshots -

I've been following Team Rwanda off and on pretty much since its inception, as well as the blog of their Director of Marketing and Logistics, Kimberly Coats. They just happen to be headquartered in Musanze! So, while others were "chasing" gorillas, Kimberly generously gave us a tour of their home, the Africa Rising Cycling Center. Very cool for this (former) cyclist!

As others have noted, while in Huye we visited Inzozi Nziza for ice cream, twice - at the demand of the students. In addition to the ice cream, I highly recommend the film, Sweet Dreams, available to stream on several digital platforms. Here are a couple of Pipers enjoying the treats!

In closing, a few things of which to take note. First, a "hold the date" note. On the evening of Monday, 14 November, we may be kicking off a photo exhibit - part of International Week - with a panel discussion. I hope you can join us. I'll post details here and create a Facebook event later.

Second - and this is very, very, very preliminary... but I'm exploring the possibility of the Center for Justice and Law offering an educational trip to Rwanda - open to all - in January or May of 2018. This would be a non-credit, abbreviated version of the course. If you're interested in knowing more as things unfold, please contact me to be placed on a mailing list.

I'm going to cut myself off here lest this get too long. Thanks for "joining us" in our journey!


Looking Back

It has officially been a week since we arrived back in Minnesota from our adventures abroad. Readjusting back to life and trying to find a new "normal" routine has been more challenging than I expected. It has been really strange not having a set plan each day and being apart from the people I spent pretty much every hour of the day with for 3 weeks.

Another challenge that I have been facing is trying to share what I experienced with my friends and family. On the one hand, I love telling them about all the amazing things we did and the people we met. On the other hand, I'm wanting them to feel and understand all of the same emotions and insights that I encountered on the trip. I have slowly been coming to accept that this just isn't possible. As much as I want them to, the people I share my stories with will never have the experience of being on this trip. That is why I am thankful that there are 15 other people who did share in the same things I did. Even though our individual experiences were each unique, it's comforting to know that there are people I can turn to who went through the same things that I did. I'm very grateful for the group that we had and how kind and open everybody was.

Looking back, I am so thankful for everything and everyone who made this trip the incredible experience that it was. I learned so much from the people we met on this trip, both on an academic level and a personal level. They have challenged me to change the way I look life and what it means to have strength, forgive and love others.

I want to say a big thank you to Professor Embser-Herbert, Caroline Hilk, Yvan and the many other people who made this trip possible! It truly was the trip of a lifetime and I will never forget it!


When can I leave again?

Before I travel, I always feel an anxious, nervous excitement. Going new places, seeing new things, and meeting new people is always like taking a step into the unknown. Yet, every time I travel I am reminded why traveling out of the country is so worth it. This trip gave me a hundred reasons why I should study abroad again and keep traveling to new places.  

From the minute we got to Rwanda, I felt more comfortable than I expected. Everyone we met was so welcoming. It seemed that every restaurant, hostel, and organization we visited started by telling us how welcome we were. It also helped that our group was great. Everyone was flexible and willing to take things as they came. One thing that I really appreciated was that we were all willing to share what we had, making it easier to experience everything possible and to be safe and happy. Another thing that made me feel so welcome and secure in Rwanda was our wonderful tour guide Yvan. He answered every question we had, made sure we got a chance to experience everything that we could, and went above and beyond to make sure we were having a good time and saying safe.

Another reason the trip way so great was the amazing things we did. Gorilla trekking was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will remember forever. The safari showed me a new way to appreciate animals and has made me reconsider how I see zoos. The canopy walk offered amazing views and pushed me to do something that was a little scary. All of these amazing excursions showed me different environments and wildlife in different parts of Rwanda and were a great way to break from the heaviness of our study of genocide and reconciliation. 

Finally, the academic piece of this study abroad was incredibly eye opening. The memorial sites offered new information about the genocide and different perspectives and stories to tell about it. Visiting the reconciliation villages and various NGOs and nonprofits offered a view of the amazing work being done today and gave an overwhelming sense of hope. Everywhere we went I got the sense that people were doing everything in their power to make Rwanda their home again and to improve the country for the future. With this, I felt that most people we met with wanted us to share with the world what we had experienced, to tell others that Rwanda is recovering and has so much to offer the world. Going to the PIASS workshop confirmed this. The students we met were incredibly welcoming and most were focusing their studies on peace and conflict studies. In that room, there was a great sense of hope for the future and an obvious desire to fix problems they saw in their countries.

I will never forget the experiences I had, the people I met and the things I saw on this trip. I still can’t believe I got this opportunity and hope that Hamline students in the future will be able to find their own adventures all over the world to broaden their perspectives and give them a new view of different areas of the world. Thank you so much Professor Embser-Herbert and Caroline Hilk for making this possible, keeping us safe, and for being so amazing!

Miss you already

We've been home for two days now and even though our trip is over I still thought I would make one last blog. Since we have been home I have enjoyed seeing my friends and family but it has also been hard to be back. I was watching a movie with my little sister yesterday afternoon and one of the scenes a man dies, his flesh melts away, and all that is left of him were his bones. I found myself feeling very scared, sad, and having flash backs to some of the memorials we seen in Rwanda. I sat there in silence and didn't express to my family what I was mentally going through. Not because they wouldn't listen but because some of the things we seen at the various memorials are very hard to put into words. As a group we had multiple conversations regarding how do we begin to explain what we learned or experienced on our journey. We talked about how it is hard to explain everything we experienced due to these encounters being very emotional and hard to grasp.

Another experience I had yesterday included one of my friends telling me how my trip looked so exciting and fun because we got to see the gorillas, but what people forget to remember was yes those were fun and exciting things to do but that was not our main purpose we learned and experienced so much more. It is not her fault because those were the only images she had seen me post on social media. I encourage others to remember there were lots of things we experienced that we did not post images of for the respect of viewers and the families that lost friends and family members buried in the various memorials. I encourage our family and friends to understand it may take some time for us to process what we learned and experienced on this trip and it is hard to talk about but to remember that ever single experience we had enriched our learning every step of the way and I will never regret any of the experiences we had.

I am very thankful for each and every one of my peers that was on this trip. Every single person on our trip brought their own personality and added to an amazing experience. I enjoyed the fact that no matter what we were experiencing happy or sad times we always supported each other. I also want to say thank you to Professor Embser-Herbert and Caroline for being our fearless leaders and supporting us throughout this entire trip. I miss you all so much it has been weird waking up and not having breakfast together. 


All Good Things Must Come to an End

Today is our last day in Amsterdam and the last day of our trip. There are a lot of mixed emotions within the group. I think that many of us are sad that our adventures are coming to an end, but also ready to get home to our friends and family.

This morning we had the opportunity to visit the Anne Frank House and Museum, which I think was the perfect way to wrap up our trip. Walking through the secret annex was a really humbling and powerful experience. I can't imagine spending two years in a cramped canal house, forced to be quiet and stay indoors while also living in constant fear of being discovered. Hearing about the terrors of the Holocaust from the eyes of a young, innocent (and incredibly insightful) girl puts this unthinkable period of history into a new perspective.

While visiting the home of Anne Frank is powerful is moving in its own right, being able to experience it after spending two weeks learning about the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi gives the experience a whole new meaning. It's very easy for society to brand genocide as a one time tragedy, never to happen again. However, genocide continues to occur, not just once but multiple times throughout history. I have been having a hard time understanding how we continue to allow genocide to happen. History is supposed to be about learning from our mistakes, but instead we see them repeated over and over again.

Visiting the Anne Frank House today was also incredibly meaningful because of the recent events in Orlando. On the way to the house, we passed the "Homomonument,"a monument dedicated to members of the LGBT community. The monument was still decorated with hundreds of flowers, candles, and notes from a vigil that had taken place the night before. While we like to pretend that such unspeakable acts of violence are a thing of the past, seeing the vigil before visiting the Anne Frank House was a reminder that our world is still full of fear and hate. It's hard not to be overwhelmed by all of the evil that is around us, but if this trip has taught me anything, it's that hope and healing are incredibly powerful forces. The power of the human spirit to rally and find hope, love and forgiveness after experiencing tragedy is both perplexing and beautiful.

Adventures in Amsterdam

Today was ours to explore Amsterdam! In the morning we went on a canal tour to see the history of this wonderful city! Looking at all the canals and the beautiful architecture around me started my day off right. After that we were in our own and our group first went to get lunch. Of course I went the American way and got a hamburger. I have to say, America doesn't have a hamburger like this! It was super fresh with the fresh lettuce that they call rocket, and the onions had a sweet jam on them. On the side they had very good fries a lot with aioli sauce. After a wonderful lunch, our group went to the Vincent Van Gogh museum. This was the museum that I had been wanting to visit the entire trip and the museum certainly met my expectations! Each floor told the story of Vincent's life seeing his life's work and work that gave him inspiration. It was a wonderful day in the city of Amsterdam and I'm so sad that we have to leave soon.


Azizi Life!

Today we drove to Muhanga which is the third largest city in Rwanda. We visited an organization called Azizi Life. Azizi is a Swahili word that translates to excellent. Azizi Life was founded with the aim of honoring the work of local Rwandan artists and by helping them sell their art, they are able to take care of their families. At the Azizi Life office, we given a brief introduction of how the organization started and the many projects it engages in to lift Rwandan women out of poverty. The women form cooperatives in which they carry out various art activities like basket weaving.

After the briefing, we split into two groups and each group got to spend the day with a family and take part in its daily activities. Like a typical Rwandan family, we started by preparing the meal to be shared after doing all the housework. As the meal was cooking, we went to the garden and helped with weeding. Before leaving the garden we cut grass to feed the cows. In the field, we learned how to make crowns out of banana leaves which helped balance the grass we carried on our head. We also walked to the stream to fetch water. The walk to the stream was pretty long and each person carried a 5 liter jerrycan. The women at the house told us that depending on the activities of the day, people walk to the stream two to three times a day. 

We shared a meal with the families and we all gathered at one house to play games, dance, and learn how to make bracelets. The people we worked with today were amazing, I was glad they shared with us pieces of their lives. Overall, the day was really great. It is not often that one gets to experience a day outside their own, I'm glad today was a day of a number of firsts for the group!

Azizi Life

Today was a very exhausting day. When I woke up this morning I did not feel good and was not excited for the day's adventure. The minute we pulled up to Azizi Life and were welcomed by the beautiful and gracious women of the village singing, dancing, and hugging us I couldn't help but feel welcomed and instantly uplifted. After introductions we were wrapped in traditional clothing and told we were no longer Americans, but rather Rwandans. We spent our day split into two groups and each group went with a separate family. We began our day learning how to peel sweet potatoes and cook beans with greens. After learning how to prepare the food for lunch we then learned how to create a fire to cook our food. After preparing lunch we hoed in the garden and harvested potatoes. We then cut grass to feed the cow. The next task was by far the hardest; we each grabbed jugs to fill up with water. The walk to retrieve water was at least a half mile which was not bad but the hard part was walking back up the hill with the water. We learned today that the women in this village walk to get water three times a day. This water is used for bathing, cooking food, watering their crops, and drinking. After we returned with the water we washed our hands and ate lunch together. Eating lunch was very interesting we sat on the floor and the food was placed in front of us on a large banana tree leaves where we then used our hands to eat. The food was really good, by far one of the best meals we have had here. After lunch we gathered as a whole group and learned how to make soccer balls and bracelets from banana tree leaves.

The purpose of this experience was to learn and understand the daily lives of the women in the village. After fulfilling all of their daily duties for the morning and afternoon I couldn't help but wonder how they manage to work so incredibly hard all day and night. One thing I was thinking about while we were going through the various tasks was what role do men play in everyday life if the women are doing the manual labor? Overall, I had a wonderful time and enjoyed understanding how hard the women work. I can say today I met some of the most caring and hard working women!


Women's Opportunity Center

Yesterday we toured the Women's Opportunity Center in Kayonza. Before that, our morning consisted of a quick pit stop at Sweet Dreams, an ice cream shop that had heavenly coffee, honey, and vanilla flavors as well as cookie toppings and mixed coffee/ice cream drinks. After sitting in the bus cooped up for a few hours, we were all more than ready to leap off the buses. The Opportunity Center made for a very nice first impression with its eco-friendly personality, with solar panels, open-air tents and classrooms/offices, and even composting toilets! The center is aimed at helping women affected by the genocide. When our group arrived, all the women who utilize the Opportunity Center were situated in a large room with baskets - they were learning or teaching or perfecting weaving skills! The center also had a field down the hill that was free for women to use - no rent necessary - to learn how to grow their own food, cook it in the on-site kitchen, and sell it at the markets. The entire center had a very modern layout. The classrooms had roofs that looked like large leaves, where the solar panels were located, and out from underneath them various fruits and vegetables were growing! It was nice to be in a place that was solely about picking women up and giving them the tools to get back up on their feet for themselves and establish strength and independence.


Today I was able to cross another item off my bucket list. We had to get up at 5:00 for the safari at Akegera National Park, but the lack of sleep was worth it! Having previously talked with people that had gone on the safari, I knew not to get my hopes up too high. I desperately wanted to see elephants, for example, but knew that they are not always spotted by safari goers. Before we began the tour of the park, we headed to a hotel on the premises to pick up our packed lunch. At the hotel, baboons and other monkeys ran across the roof of the building to peer down into our jeeps. We drove away with our lunch still in one piece and headed into the park! On the drive I was very pleasantly surprised by the array of animals we saw. Aside from the plethora of monkeys along the way, we spotted hippos, zebras, giraffes, antelope, water buck, ELEPHANTS, and even a lion and a crocodile (well at least the tail).  I am so glad that I brought my macro-lens with my camera today, and can't wait to share my photos with everyone! What an unbelievable experience!


Today we went a safari. We saw elephants, hippos, water buffalo, zebras, giraffes, antelope, baboons, and a lion. This definitely ruined zoos for me. The animals are so much more beautiful in person than behind glass at the zoo.

The other thing that has ruined zoos for me is that every time we park our bus, the bus full of white people draws a crowd that just stares at us like we are in a zoo. This is the first time in my life that I have been a part of the racial minority and no doubt it is uncomfortable. I feel like we cause a scene wherever we go in a group. This is the first time I have felt out of place because of my skintone. I know people live like this every day, and I can only imagine how uncomfortable it is to live your life like this. Either way zoos are ruined for me.


The safari was amazing! Despite the dust and the bugs, this is definitely something I would do again in a heartbeat. Our group got picked by the jeeps at 6 in the morning and we drove about an hour to get to Akagera National Park. The park alone is beautiful, the landscape is so perfect it almost looks fake. Our wonderful guide/driver have us fun facts about the land and the animals as we went along. One of the first things we saw was a lake that lies between Rwanda and Tanzania.

The first animal we saw was a baboon. At first we only saw one, but just a little bit down the road was a large group of them, including a baby!  We saw hippos next as continued to see them as the ride went on for the majority of the day. Shorty after our first hippo sighting we were fortunate enough to see elephants! Our guide shared that this doesn't always happen, and when it does there isn't always a big group. We were lucky enough to see 2 large groups of them and a lone elephant drinking water. I cannot believe that the photos I got are real. A little while later we were able to see a lion, another rare enough event. The rest of the ride offered so many zebras, impalas, and water buffalo that I could not count. Overall, the experience was irreplaceable.

As we went, I started to question the happiness of animals I have seen in zoos. Not only are they transported to places that are no where near their natural habitats, but they are given such a small amount of space. I don't think I really though about that until I saw how much room the animals on the safari had. The animals there seemed to have so much more life in them then any I've ever seen in zoos. It's just such a different experience to see these animals in environments much more natural to them than zoos.

This is just another way this trip has changed my perspectives. When I'm home I always forget that the best part of traveling is pushing yourself to be in different situations that challenge your view points.  As the end of the trip is fast approaching, I still can't believe it's really happening. How cool is it that I got to go to Rwanda with a group of awesome people and experience all these amazing things? I still can't believe that this is happening and that the trip has been this amazing. I am definitely considering coming back in the not too distant future.


Canopy Walk

Today was a great day. The canopy walk was incredible. We had a great tour guide named Claude, who navigated us through the forest very well and pointed out many facts regarding the forest. The view from the canopy was amazing, you could see rolling hills far in the distance deep rain forests. A few people were very, very hesitant about walking across the canopy but with great encouragement from Claude everyone made it across. It was a beautiful time. After the canopy walk we visited a village area were tin art and jewelry are made. We learned the process of how it is all made and was told that it's a two day process for one piece of art. That takes talent and patience. We ended our afternoon with amazing ice cream from an ice cream shop in Huye. The ice cream was so good that we convinced our professor, tour guide, and bus driver to stop there in the morning for breakfast. Great way to start a Tuesday morning in Rwanda (they also serve coffee).

High Above the Canopy of Nyungwe Forest

Today the Hamline group ventured into the Nyungwe National Forest for a hike and canopy walk. Every one of our brave group made it across the high bridge hanging about 50 meters above the ground. It was a thrilling experience for us all!

On the way back to Huye we stopped at Les √Čtains de l'√Čtainerie de Huye. We learned the process of how tin is used to hand-craft beautiful pieces of art and jewelry.

No day of adventure is complete without a stop for ice cream. Thanks to Melissa's recommendation we visited Inzozi Nziza for ice cream. The women owners of this business were featured in the movie, Sweet Dreams. We enjoyed the coffee, honey, or chocolate ice cream so much we are headed back for breakfast tomorrow!


New friendships, new views.

Yesterday we went to PIASS (Protestant Institute of Arts and Social Sciences) and met with students our age who are a part of a peace organization on their campus. We did ice breakers and got to know each other, then we began discussing the civil rights movement in the United States. It was really interesting to hear their perspective and their questions, it opened my eyes to things in my own culture that I would not have questioned otherwise. The conversations were very productive and really showed our cultural differences, but also showed that we all are working towards the same goal of peace in the world. After the discussion on civil rights, a PIASS student presented on the youth involvement in Rwanda regarding reconciliation after the genocide. This experience with the students was probably my favorite thing that we have done on this trip. Although we all have our history, we are all trying to make a better future for ourselves.

Today, one of the women from PIASS took me to church, I wanted to see what a Rwandan Catholic mass was like. It was beautiful, the music was very different from what I am used to at church in the United States, but I felt welcome and at home there. I'm glad I went to church because today was a very emotional day. We went to the Murambi Memorial Center with some of the students from PIASS, it is a site where tens of thousands of people were murdered in the genocide. They had human remains that were preserved at the memorial, and some of the students that we were with were very emotional. It is hard for me to explain how powerful the memorial is, so I will include a link in this blog for you to look at. After visiting the memorial, I was dealing with many emotions, especially towards my new friends from PIASS. And I hope that no one has to ever feel that pain in the future. 


How the Heck Do I Make this Funny?

I like being funny when I blog. Making people laugh, or at least smile, is a great feeling. And I like using humor when faced with something heavy emotion-wise. Jokes and sarcasm make for great defense mechanisms.

At least, until you go to a Rwandan genocide memorial. Especially Murambi. Yeesh.

Suffice to say, it was bad. We're talking about mummified bodies frozen in their last moments of agony; that's not exactly a third grade field trip. A few students from a local college came with us and two of them collapsed sobbing at the first room.

Some people might use the word morbid to describe the display, and that might not be a bad term. Normally memorials are...well, clean, for lack of a better term. You'll read about what happened and maybe see the names and some photographs, but you don't actually see the bodies. Definitely not exactly as they died, where you can see for yourself how they died, whether they were begging or trying shield themselves or if it was too quick for them to try to defend themselves. Rwanda certainly knows how to leave an impression.

Everyone likes to compare the Rwandan genocide to the Holocaust, and I'm no exception. As I was thinking about this blog post (more like panicking, because seriously, how the hell am I supposed to write about this s***?) I started thinking about how people react to tragedies like this. Humor is my shield of choice. But at what point does that start to do more harm than good?

We've all heard a Holocaust joke or two, maybe more if you have the weird uncle who drinks too much and says things he really shouldn't. Very few people actually enjoy them, but for most of us we kind of shrug it off as just having bad taste. It happened ages ago, and it's not like it'll ever happen again.

Except...it did. Not against Jews, but against Tutsis. That underlying hatred is still there. It's on every inhabited continent and every country. Not even the US is exempt (*cough cough* Native Americans *cough*).

It's the distance that does it. After a tragedy, we shed our tears, put up a memorial or two, say our prayers, and promise never again. But then we forget about it. We make light of it. We make really bad jokes that dismiss the suffering of millions of people. We let hatred seep back into our respective societies and fester until it explodes in another horrendous tragedy, and the cycle starts anew.

Rwandan memorials don't do that, especially not Murambi. They don't just show you pictures that you can distance yourself from. They show you the bodies, the caved-in skulls and shattered ribs of innocent people, and they dare you to make light of it.

Humor's a great shield. It needs to remain a shield, not a weapon.


After a year of waiting...

Today was a special day for me. Over the last year one of my main roles as a student leader for this course was to help coordinate an exchange between the Hamline students on this study abroad course and students from a university called PIASS, Protestant Institute for Arts and Social Sciences. First, the other student leader and myself from Hamline presented to the PIASS about slavery to the American Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter movement. The PIASS students then presented on youth involvement in reconciliation efforts after the 1994 genocide. After discussion of our specific topics we moved into more general discussion of reconciliation. In this discussion of reconciliation we discussed questions that are really central to the issue of reconciliation and conflict. These questions really made me think, I still don't have answers to most of them, but I think they are important questions to think about for everybody living in the U.S. Or anywhere where systematic wrongs have been committed. These questions were:

Can I/ Should I apologize that happened before I was born, or which I did not directly cause?

How do I react or act in the process of reconciliation not as a perpetrator of wrongs but as a benefactor?

Can one person apologize on behalf of another or on behalf of a group?


Early and Long!

Today started with an early wake and a long drive. We departed Musanze/Ruhengeri - at 6:30 a.m. upon the serpentine roads to Huye/Butare.  In the midst of this 6 hour drive, we stopped in the Nyanza area - once home of the precolonial-Rwandan kings.  Our agenda was with some haste to meet some appointments, however, and we could not spend time in the ancient history of Rwanda, today. Instead, we spent time with members of the Avega group, an organization that deals in reconciliation and reconstruction - particularly with orphans and widows.

I do wish that this stop had not been so short. There were far too many topics and places to be seen and discussed than could possibly be allocated to a day, let alone the few hours we had. We met with women of Avega, a very comprehensive and far-reaching organization that works to give aid and nurture reconciliation for, primarily, widows and orphans of the genocide.  They achieve this through investment, healthcare and training, and a variety of other specialized projects across the country. A whole trip could be devoted to seeing these projects. A whole weekend could even be devoted to a single one.

Our first stop was in a rural village established for widows, orphans, and a few disenfranchised men supported by Avega. We saw fields of sorghum and bananas. Unlike many reconciliation villages, there was no sense of capital tourism. There were no baskets, dances, or pieces of merchandise - there was a group of children that chased our van for a couple miles to meet us. Some of the women had nice sandals. Most of the kids had old sandals. Some had no footwear at all. On the way back I got a glimpse of the living conditions as I used an outhouse. As I boarded the bus I passed two shirtless young boys - I'm of the opinion their clothes were on the drying line in that same yard.

The women from Avega talked about much of the psychological trauma people (generations) faced in the wake of the genocide. Many examples were listed, I personally found - with a brief study of pre-genocide Rwandan gender roles and marriage ceremonies - rape to be the most horrifying, disgusting, and damaging atrocity to a survivor's sociability and sanity. Women were left without any support in a culture (formed by tradition and Catholicism) where virginity and monogamy were held in sanctity. Prostitution rates rose after the genocide. However, this is only a matter discussed that struck me most, the breadth and weight of the atrocities of the genocide is unfathomable. This is simply a single matter of the countless troubles of the genocide.

The prevalence of mental illness is not surprising in light of countless horror stories of the genocide. However, to think thoroughly on it gives it incredible weight. Avega runs programs for getting emotional and mental aid into the remote towns and villages - training locals and commuting some to intensive care. Psychological aid is still not readily available to all in Rwanda, however. Avega, and other organizations, are limited in their ability and outreach.

Yet, Avega still has a wide-reaching network. After our trip to that village, we traveled to a local yoghurt production, founded by a widow supported by Avega. Her company has been incredibly successful and only continues to strive for high goals - the company employs many orphans of the genocide and is officially recognized by the Rwandan government as a place of sanitary and notable food business. She looked very different from any woman in the village. Her life was undoubtably more financially prosperous. I do not know the full capabilities of Avega, but it is quite interesting to see that they can aid the lives of rural farmers and business leaders, alike.

The genocide was built on discretion, yet discretion was utterly abandoned in its execution. The poor and wealthy, alike were killed, hunted, and utterly disenfranchised. All minds are alike in a regard - they are fragile. It's horrifying and indignantly humanizing to see that this is a fragility that lies in us all. Yet, with proper support, such as that which Avega tries to deliver, one can still recover and even thrive. There is certainly a visible trend of progress in these examples.

Avega Agahozo

It was another early morning in Rwanda for the Hamline students. We departed the Musanze hotel at about 6:30 am to head to Huye. The drive was pretty long, but the rolling, green mountains made the three hours pass relatively quickly.

Once we got to Huye, we met up with several of the directors of the Avega Agahozo organization (Association of Genocide Widows). Avega Agahozo is a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of widows and orphans from the genocide. Their main office is located in Kigali, but they have several branches across the country. One of Avega's main missions is to provide the resources the women need to lift themselves out of poverty. This includes providing plots of land, livestock, and other resources. One of the directors told us that jobs and education help to keep the survivors busy and keep their minds off of the genocide.

Avega also plays a large role in helping survivors dealing with mental illness due to the horrors they've witnessed during the genocide. Many survivors have a difficult time reintegrating back into society because things that were once normal to them can now trigger severe distress. For example, some survivors can't return to their homes or use the tools required for farm work. Avega provides counseling and resources for these people with the goal that they will find some peace and healing. One thing that was really cool is that Avega provides these services free of charge.

Our first stop with the directors was to one of the villages that Avega has sponsored. We saw a plot of land provided by the organization that is now used to plant bananas. However, the best part of that visit was getting to interact with the local women and children. They were so happy to see us and very curious. However, they quickly warmed up to us and we showed them how to do the hokey pokey and the chicken dance! It was such a joyful moment and it's so encouraging to see the love and life that is still in Rwanda.

We ended the day with a visit to the Zirakamwa Meza dairy factory (translated to "my cows give good milk"), which is run by one of the widows of the genocide. Throughout the genocide, she lost her husband, her friends, and all of her belongings. Amazingly, after the genocide the woman took in multiple children who had been orphaned by the genocide despite her desperate financial situation. With the help of Avega, she was able to build the dairy factory from the ground up and lift herself out of poverty. Her resilience and strength was unbelievable. Even in unthinkable circumstances, she did not give up because she knew she had to take care of the orphans. They actually became her family and she told us that one has recently gotten married. Her testimony of the power of a second chance was so inspiring and can make you reevaluate your perspective of life's challenges.

Once in a Lifetime Experience!

Today was an awesome day! Today was the day that I had been waiting for the entire trip! Today we went gorilla trekking! We had to get up at 5am in the morning to get ready for the trip. Once getting on site we split up into two groups. The gorilla family that we were trekking is called Ntambara, which means fighter. The reason why they called it The Ntambara family is because the silverback gorilla, which is the leader of the family, got into a lot of fights when it was younger. So, once he had his own family it was fitting to call the family fighter. On to the hike it was actually very hard going up the hills. We had to watch our footing with the rocks and mud. I fell at least twice going up the mountains. It was all so worth it because not only did we have a beautiful view going up but, we reached the family of gorillas. The family was so calm and did not care that we were there. In the family it has two adolescents! They were sooooo cute to watch and to take pictures of. We were so close to the gorillas that all we had to do was stick out our hands and touch them if we really could. The gorillas walked right in front of us and the silverback actually touched somebody in our group while walking. Everything was so amazing! I could not believe that I was actually watching watching these gorillas. I knew that this opportunity might not ever come again.


Basket weaving and Banana beer!

Today was another great and adventurous day! We drove from Kigali to Musanze which as approximately 2 hrs and 30 minutes north/northwest of Kigali. I grew up in this town, so it's hilly nature has always seemed normal to me. After being away for a while, today I realized how very hilly and different Musanze actually is! When we got to Musanze we checked in the Hotel Muhabura. Interestingly, Dian Fossey stayed there while she conducted her research in the mountain gorillas.

After lunch, we visited a cultural exchange place called Red Rocks. We first toured the place and then we got a chance to do some activities with the women from the community. After looking at the beautiful baskets at the markets and in Mbyo village, we actually got to learn how to make them.

It took at some time to get how it is done, but after trying a few times we finished a few lines with different patterns! Basket weaving has played a key role in Rwanda's reconciliation process and community development.

As we weaved, I realized how it sparked various conversations, and it gave me a picture of what it might be like when Rwandan women, both genocide survivors and genocide perpetrators' wives, are able to talk about the genocide and how to move forward. So, I thought it was wonderful to experience part of the process.

Lastly, we worked with the women from the center to make banana beer and we tried some of the finished product they already had. We also had a traditional dance troupe dance for and with us, and they taught some of the students how play drums! It was an awesome afternoon!

Having a good time!

Today was a very eventful day for us. We left our first hostel in Kigali and moved to Hotel Muhabura located in Musanze. After lunch we got the chance to visit Red Rocks where we learned how to make banana beer/banana juice, and basketweaving. The women from the community sat with us and showed us how they make the baskets these are very important to the reconciliation process because basketweaving is a way of bonding. Along with basketweaving and making banana beer we enjoyed learning the traditional dancing and drumming. These forms of art help the community create bonds and builds an economy following the genocide. The trip so far has been going great we are growing and learning more and more everyday. Tomorrow will be a very exciting day and early day starting at 5am. We will be starting our gorilla trekking adventure up the volcanoes to see the gorillas. I'm excited to see what the rest of our trip has in store!


Reconciliation Village and Refugee Camp

Today was a very eye-opening day. We started the day by going to Mbyo Reconciliation Village outside of Kigali. The village was set up as a way for perpetrators and victims of genocide to learn to trust each other again first by constructing the houses in their community together and then by living and working together as one community. As we arrived in the village one of the children who lived there chased after our bus trying to run next to it. When we got off the bus we were greeted by many people shaking our hands and saying "muraho" or "hello". We sat on benches under the trees in between two houses. The children of the village started by singing a song for us and performing a traditional dance. After the performance we listened to the testimony from three members of the village, two victims of genocide and one perpetrator of genocide. They each shared their story of how they came together, perpetrators and victims, first to share their stories and then to build their community. After the testimonies the children performed another dance and invited us to join them.

The dancing was beautiful but it wasn't just the dancing it was that the children from two different sides of genocide were able to come together and make something so joyful without any hint of tension. It was unbelievable. They made it seem as if forgiveness was an easy thing to accomplish. As someone who has had a hard time forgiving people for much smaller wrongs it is difficult for me imagine living and relying on someone who has hurt your family so much. The amount of forgiveness that went into that dance made it more beautiful than can be described.

The other eye-opening experience of the day was driving past a refugee camp fifteen minutes from the Rwanda-Burundi border. The camp was set up as a first stop for refugees fleeing political instability in Burundi. The refugees only spend a few days in the camp to be registered with Rwanda and the UN as refugee and be checked for diseases before being relocated to refugee camps further into Rwanda.

This was a UN-funded camp but still the tents were tattered and there didn't seem to be many supplies. Even though we looked only on the camp from our air-conditioned bus for a a few moments it still gave true impression as a difficult way to live. It was the first time I had seen anything like it. It was just indescribable.

Reconciliation Village

Today was almost a complete turnaround from the sadness we experienced yesterday. We started the day by heading to the Mbyo Reconciliation Village. This is a community where survivors and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide live next to each other, work together, and try to rebuild relationships and trust after the betrayal and horror many experienced in the genocide. The reconciliation process is facilitated by an organization called Prison Fellowship. We were fortunate enough to be able to hear both survivors and perpetrators speak about their experiences in the genocide, their life after the RPF took control of Rwanda, and their personal experiences with reconciliation and forgiveness. After seeing the memorials yesterday, I could not have imagined someone sitting down with a person who had done such horrible, violent things to their loved ones. I don't think I would be able to be that strong. Yet, today we heard from people who are building trusting relationships with those who killed their families.  The people we talked with today shared with us that when the reconciliation and forgiveness process starts, there is a lot of fear on both sides. Victims are afraid that perpetrators will seek to kill or hurt them as they hurt their family during the genocide, and the perpetrators are afraid of victims' seeking revenge. I think it has to be this mutual feeling of fear and vulnerability that really opens the door for forgiveness to start. Seeing similar feelings in a person you have feared may help both people involved to open up and feel a little more safe. From the first meeting between victim and perpetrator, it is a long road to true forgiveness. In the village, building houses for each other, working together towards a common goal, is one of the ways trust can be facilitated.

After hearing their stories, we were able to ask questions about the reconciliation process to learn more about how this is accomplished. Throughout our time there, I could not stop thinking about how strong all of these people were. It takes a lot of courage to be able to even consider forgiving someone who as wronged you. On the other end, I can't really imagine how perpetrators must feel when talking with those they have wronged. One man we spoke with talked about how they need to ask forgiveness of God before they can ask forgiveness of survivors. I can only imagine this to be an incredible amount of soul searching and faith. The power of faith and religion seemed very strong amongst those we spoke with, and I think that is what really allows forgiveness to be possible. To be able to accomplish what they have is incredible and I am in awe of the resilience of each person we met at the village today.


Off Day

We had an "off" day today in regards to the pure excitement and adrenaline of simply being in the 1,000 hills of Rwanda for the past two days. The Kigali Memorial Centre, the Ntarama Memorial, and the Nyamata Memorial left everyone emotionally drained. In order to process and wind down, all of us were divided into two small groups for discussion. Sadness, confusion, and every other emotion under the sun were expressed during these times. Today we put faces to some of the 800,000-1,000,000 people lost to genocide. We were given photographs and back stories. With the addition of the Nyamata and Ntarama Memorials, we were introduced to the massive amount of clothing of the deceased, mass graves, skulls and crime scenes. We were left exhausted and emotionally drained hearts and minds, so it was nice to hear everyone voice their personal experiences with the memorials. The idea of reconciliation seemed far away today, but it didn't stop us from touching on the amazement and beauty that comes out of the darkness from the forgiveness, the love, and the hope of the Rwandan people.

Day 1 in Kigali!

Sunday was our first full day in Kigali, Rwanda. We started off the day with a wonderful breakfast courtesy of our lovely hostel. It consisted of homemade bread, freshly picked bananas, a veggie dish, and omelets. After the hearty breakfast we went on a tour of Kigali via van to gain a better understanding of the city and its history. I was surprised at how beautiful and how amazingly clean it is! The “land of a thousand hills” is not an exaggeration! It is so incredibly amazing how clean and green it is. We learned that the reason that is is so clean is that communities are in charge of cleaning their villages and that it is a community and citizen obligation. In addition to this we also went to the Belgian troop memorial, the presidential palace and the market where the majority of us had clothing made to fit us. It was a wonderful first day filled with a balance of adventure and unfortunate history. The presidential palace was particularly moving to me as it really made the genocide of 1994 feel real and as though it was as recent as it was. All in all it was a great introduction to the history of the 1994 genocide of Rwanda and prepped us and gave us background information for the next day. 

Memorials and Mishaps

Today we visited three different memorial sites. Needless to say, we dealt with a lot of heavy material, and by the end of the day we were all drained. It was an unforgettable experience, unlike anything I have ever encountered before. To polish off the day we enjoyed a tasty Italian meal at Sole Luna where Greta and I mistakenly ate part of Jessica's dinner. We gave her the remainder of her meal as well as our appetizer as an apology. On a bright note, I hear she was quite pleased with her end of the bargain.

Lesson for today: If something doesn't quite look right with your food, it might not be yours after all!

First full day!

First full day, complete. I woke up early in the morning to go running with Abby and Patrick. So many other locals were running, it was beautiful. A truck full of men drove by and gave us a thumbs up and a group of children cheered for us, amazing moments. After the run and the great hostel breakfast (very yummy bread), the day was full of visiting many sites. We started with a city tour followed by the memorial for the ten Belgians killed in the first days of the genocide, Hotel des Mille Collines, the Presidential Palace Museum (full of many secrets), and the Kimironko market. The market was a new experience for me, I'm not use to the bargaining so it was uncomfortable and stressful. Overall, it was a stressful day due to the many new experiences and sites, but also an amazing, exciting, and beautiful day.


We made it!

After two days of traveling, including an overnight in Qatar, we've made it to Rwanda! The long flights, long lines, and long waits in airports were all worth, because this country is breathtaking. I see why they call it the land of 1,000 hills, they're everywhere! Our guide, Yvan, is very welcoming and informative, I see why our professor likes him so much. We haven't walked around much of Kigali today, we drove some, the motorcyclists are everywhere and we got to see the landscape and buildings from the van. We had dinner at Republika Lounge, the staff met us with smiles and LOTS of food. The food was traditional Rwandan food served family style, there was rice, fish, lamb, beef, chicken, spinach, beans, plantains, and samosas. Everything tasted delicious. The hostel is really cool, with a nice patio to socialize. We're all pretty tired from our travels, but so happy to be here. Tomorrow we will explore the city! If the first day was this amazing, I can't wait to see what the rest of this trip holds.

Airports, Hostels, and Little Fried Fish

We woke up in Qatar and are about to fall asleep in Kigali.

That may sound exciting, but really it was just exhausting. Minneapolis to Kigali took roughly 48 hours. We are inches shy of ODing on airport coffee and tray meals. Several of us almost fell face-first into dinner and slept at the restaurant.

That is a great thing about Kigali that I've discovered. For me, I'm all or nothing when it comes to my taste in food. I love Japanese cuisine but can't do Chinese. Authentic Mexican food hates me, but poorly-imitated American Mexican food is fine, and Italian food is even better. So going in, I knew that I was either going to have three weeks of cuisine heaven or I'd be rationing whatever snacks that survived the airplanes.

Luckily, Rwandan food is the bomb. I was chomping on little fried fish like French fries.

Now we're going to surrender to the crushing weight of 48 hours of travel, take full advantage of our beds, and get some much-needed shut-eye.


Travel Day

We have been waiting so long and its finally here! Today is the day we get to start this trip and I couldn't be more excited. From safaris to school children there are crazy beautiful things ahead of us and I can't wait not only to immerse myself in this experience but to see everyone else do so as well.

Muraho Rwanda!

In a few short hours we will meet at the MSP airport to embark on our trip to Rwanda. Fourteen amazing students, one incredible professor, and me.

I am reminded of the eve of my own college study abroad experience in 1997 before I left for the Global Semester. Mother Teresa had died and at the same time the press coverage was all consumed with the premature death of Princess Diana in a car accident. I remember feeling both exhilaration and trepidation. What had I gotten myself into? Was this going to be the life-changing experience I hoped it would be? Indeed it was an experience that would change my life forever: I became a globally-conscious citizen, better travel companion, thoughtful observer, and a person with an insatiable curiosity about the world.

Rwanda will be a new experience for all of us. I am thrilled to accompany this group of amazing individuals as we hear stories from people not so different from us, learn about the country's reconciliation efforts, explore unfamiliar places, and begin to understand a bit more about our shared humanity.


Note to Self: Anti-Malarials Should Be Taken At Night When Dizziness is Allowed

What the title says.

We're going to be in Rwanda in two days, so I started anti-malarials today. I popped a pill right after class (so around noon) before taking what was supposed to be a one-hour nap before going to work.

When the alarm went off, I sat up to turn it off, and the floor tried to throw me out the window.

Oh, I do not have time for this, I thought, muttering curses that should not be repeated on a school blog. I had to cash a check at the bank, last-minute stuff to buy, a suitcase to pack, and, obviously, work: that thing that pays for food and rent.

Medication-induced dizziness is nothing new; it happened a lot when I first started taking anti-depressants. So I set the alarm for another fifteen minutes, figuring an elongated snooze was in order to screw my head on straight, and laid back down.

Fifteen minutes later, the bed deposited me on the floor when I tried to get up. Stupid bed.

If I had an office job, I would've soldiered through it. Dizziness is manageable when you're sitting down. Unfortunately (well, usually it's very fortunate, especially with this weather, but not today) I canvass for a living. That's door-to-door sales. That's walking out in the heat and sun for at least three hours straight.

I texted my supervisor, who is a saint, what was happening and hit the fifteen minute snooze one more time. It'd make me a few minutes late, but I'd be certain that I wouldn't collapse in a sweaty heap on some potential customer's porch. That's not a good sales technique.

No such luck. My brain was still swimming in a fish tank. So I called up my supervisor and told him that I was sparing him a potential lawsuit by taking a sick day. Lucky for me, I'm the favorite of the office (totally true, ask my boss), so I got the day off.

The dizziness only lasted a few hours, so I was able to do all the other pre-trip stuff I had to do. As I continue to take more my body will realize Oh, this is a good thing and we don't need to make the Boss's life miserable when she gives it to us, so this annoying side effect should taper off.

Until then, I'm taking the anti-malarials right before bed. Dizziness is only allowed when I'm asleep.

The Countdown Begins!

I am soooo excited and nervous at the same time in this trip. As I was packing tonight reality set in that I am going out of the country and my destination is AFRICA! I have a tendency to overpack on trips so, I hope that I did not do that for this adventure. In class today we watched some videos regarding the killing that's happened in a church. I can only image what those people could have felt like. Coming to a church is supposed to be your safe place. But, during 1994 it was not. Knowing that I am religious myself, I think it is going to be very hard for me to go to these museums about the killings that happened. As I go to these museums though it will be hard to look at I am very excited to learn something new and appreciate our country in America. Another thing that I am excited about is gorilla trekking. This is a once in a lifetime experience and I cannot wait. Though I do not know what to expect the long hike is going to be well worth it. What a way to set off my summer with this trip! I'm soooo happy for this opportunity and once again just cannot wait!!

Adventure Awaits!!

I have now gotten past the pre-travel nervous jitters - it's setting in that in 24 HOURS I will hopefully be sleeping (but will probably just be rolling around in anticipation to get up and go) and eventually wake up and arrive at the airport! I am excited about renewing perspectives and bonding with others over unraveling the history of Rwanda layer by layer.



We've only had a few classes in prep for the trip this Thursday, they've been crammed to the point of stretching and breaking. Today we had a guest speaker come in to tell his of own experience as a Rwandan.  However, this man has brought forth many more questions - many of which are sensitive in nature - to the topic of Rwanda, in general. The political complexities of the genocide and its aftermath are incredible.  While the events of and leading to the genocide are difficult to understand in their own right, the effects that are seen after and today are only compounding. This whole experience brings important questions of morality from the act of murder to the ends and means of its prevention. But, within the country, itself, this will likely be a topic that, for its controversial nature (as seen in the guest speaker's experience) is best remained unspoken. There are certainly plenty of other lessons and questions to be raised from the coming weeks. Some I will not expect until I see, hear, feel, smell, and taste Rwanda.  Above all, this will be an incredibly immersive experience, overwhelming at times. I can't wait to experience all I can, but I am also excited to come back with this experience and see how it fits into other events that cannot be seen while I am immersed. Tonight I pack. Tomorrow I have class, pack some more, and double check all my packing.  The morning after that, I depart for Rwanda. I can't wait.

Almost Time

It was great hearing John's story today in class and getting another perspective of the Genocide of 1994. It's incredible how the impact of the Genocide still has a strong effect on many Rwandans today. Regarding the trip, I am very excited and definitely nervous as well. Also, a little stressed about packing, I keep putting it off but I'm reaching crunch time and need to get it done.

It's finally here...

I can't believe we only have a few hours left till we embark on this journey. I just packed my gorilla trekking boots, so that means I'm ready. I am super excited to be going home and this time around, with my fellow Pipers!  I'm definitely not looking forward to the long flight, but I keep reminding myself that it is worth it. I'm looking forward to all the cool things we will to do, the people we will meet, and all that we will learn!