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Onward…

For better or for worse, my time in Rwanda has come to a bittersweet end. At the moment I am in the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam on my way home to NY/DC. It is surreal for me to be leaving Rwanda for “good”, though it’s unclear to me whether this is earlier or later than planned – I’m still not sure what my plans were. While I am excited about embarking on the next chapter of my life, I’m heartbroken to be leaving all of my wonderful friends and the wonderful life I’ve found in Kigali. Rwanda is a truly special place and I now understand even more why so many visitors come for six months or a year and end up staying for five years or permanently. I have definitely permanently fallen in love with Rwanda and its charms, so I think it was necessary for me to be extracted by an incredible opportunity that I couldn’t turn down.

The incredible opportunity I’m now pursuing is joining the U.S. State Department Foreign Service as a political officer. I began the multi-exam, multi-stage process over two years ago (while still at Tufts) and I was never quite sure if/when I’d get “the call.” Well, I got it last month with an official appointment offer to join the May 21st training, which I accepted. This essentially means that I will begin my orientation and training at the end of May, find out what my first assignment (country and job) will be at the end of June, and possibly live in the DC area for a few months before shipping out, depending on language training. Once I arrive at my post, I’ll be a junior officer and work at an embassy or consulate on political and/or other issues. I’m unbelievably excited to start training and dive headfirst into learning about and living the fields of diplomacy and U.S. foreign policy.

In an effort to find some “closure”, I’ve made two top ten lists that sum up my experience in Rwanda and what I’m most looking forward to about coming back to the States…

Top 10 List: Things I am most excited for in the U.S. (besides friends and family):

  • Fitted sheets
  • Delis, or being able to order a sandwich in less than 10 minutes
  • Fast internet
  • Anonymity
  • Paved roads or dirt roads that don’t turn into sticky mud pits when it rains
  • Answering machines
  • Season 4 of Parks and Recreation and Season 2 of Game of Thrones
  • Rules of the road (i.e. cars don’t turn left into oncoming traffic and buses don’t try to pass other buses with 5 feet of visibility around a sharp curve)
  • Doctors offices where you don’t have to fight with old ladies to keep your spot in “line” or carry your own specimen to the lab
  • Seasons, specifically autumn leaves and snow

Top 10 List: What I will miss most about Rwanda (besides friends and honorary family):

  • How ubiquitous and delicious milk is, and the fact that it is considered a meal
  • Perfect weather that is like a mild spring or summer day 85% of the time
  • 16-cent avocadoes twice as large as my fist
  • Going to the African bagel co-op Saturday mornings for delicious fresh donuts and bagels
  • Traveling around Rwanda’s beautifully lush and rolling countryside
  • Brochettes from the Hotel des Mille Collines
  • Jamming to Rwandan/East African music on a regular basis – especially Kitoko, Radio and Weasel, Urban Boys, Dream Boys, Kamichi, Knowless, and P Unit
  • $1.50 beer as the norm
  • Having the chance to interact with and make friends with people from all over the world – Netherlands, Germany, India, Mauritius, France, Canada, Spain, UK, Luxembourg, Bosnia and Herzegovina, DR Congo, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, South Korea, and probably more I can’t remember or wasn’t aware of because their English was impeccable
  • Living in a place that constantly awes, fascinates, teaches, and impresses me with its tireless efforts towards peacebuilding and visible economic development less than two decades after self destructing

If you’d like to keep up with my future adventures in the Foreign Service, check out www.helaina.com after about a month or so – I will redirect that address to point to a new blog. However, I’ll leave up this blog at helainainrwanda.wordpress.com so that people can still read about my experience and use it as a resource about life in Rwanda.

Thanks very much to all of my loyal readers for your thoughtful comments, feedback, and encouragement over the past year and a half. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride as much as I did.

Helping Babies Breathe

The month of March has been extremely busy at work, which is why I’ve been particularly delinquent at posting this month. Most of my time was spent preparing for a visiting delegation of neonatal nursing trainers who are currently in Rwanda to train birth attendants in Kigali and Gisenyi in a program called Helping Babies Breathe (HBB).

Helping Babies Breathe aims at training birth attendants in developing countries in the essential skills of newborn resuscitation, focusing on a baby’s first 60 seconds of life. According to the World Health Organization, one million babies die each year from birth asphyxia, the inability to breathe immediately after delivery. Eos Visions has been working with Sherri Brown, an HBB master trainer, for several years in establishing this program in Rwanda. This March 2012 trip is the first official training trip by Sherri and therefore required a great deal of time and energy on the ground here to make sure that things go smoothly.

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Preparations for the training included receiving guidance and permission from the Ministry of Health, selecting receptive and interested training institutions, ensuring that 25-30 qualified participants were selected and informed, preparing the venue and logistics, and troubleshooting along the way. Surprisingly it’s not so easy to simply show up at a hospital or health training institution and say “we want to offer your staff/students a free workshop in valuable life-saving skills.” The words “training” or “workshop” come with the expectation of all expenses being covered, which raised a few budgetary issues. Luckily we were ultimately able to compromise on providing lunch for training participants (but no transport reimbursement or daily stipend).

Through Eos Visions, Sherri plans to return to Rwanda several times over the following years with more groups of trainers to continue training in HBB at health centers around the country, guided by and in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. Although making the preparations was difficult at times, it is well worth the reward of watching trainings taking place and observing tangible knowledge being transferred in such an important skill.

Rwanda Nziza*: A Photo Essay

Translation: Beautiful Rwanda

Misty morning sunrise in northern Rwanda, on road from Kirambo to Base

Grain fields and morning mist in Kinigi, northern Rwanda

Meandering road and ominous sky near Lake Kivu on road from Gisenyi to Nkora

Colorful women on road to Lake Burera

Lake Kivu, Kibuye

Female gorilla from Kwitonda family

Baby gorilla from Kwitonda family

Silverback gorilla from Kwitonda family

Fishermen at dusk on Lake Kivu, Gisenyi

Breakfast still life at Paradise Malahide hotel, Rubavu/Gisenyi

"Ibiseke," baskets made by a women's cooperative in Gashora

View of Muhabura volcano from Lake Burera

Youth Intore dancing troupe in front of Sabyinyo volcano at Mountain Gorillas View Hotel, Musanze

Nyungwe National Forest, southwest Rwanda

Dynamic tea fields, between Gisenyi and Musanze

Tea field patterns, between Gisenyi and Musanze

Tea fields and checkerboard cultivation, between Gisenyi and Musanze

Tea fields and power lines on road from Kirambo to Base

Sorting coffee cherries before drying process at coffee washing station in Nkora, western Rwanda

Downtown Kigali viewed from Gisozi

Man vs. Machine

One of the most visible differences between the developing and developed worlds is the abundance of labor and labor-intensive processes in the developing world. Nearly every day in Rwanda I observe someone doing a job that was mechanized or automated at least one or two decades ago in most parts of the developed world. The abundance of cheap labor and the unreliability of electricity here combine to create employment in tasks that are menial and sometimes downright comical. I suppose the bottom line is that when you can’t rely on machines, you rely on people. Here are some examples:

- All buses around Kigali are staffed by a driver and a conductor who collects the bus fares from passengers. The conductor also functions as the bus route display screen by shouting the bus destination at every stop.

- Every morning Kigali’s streets are full of women employed by the city to sweep the sidewalks and the streets.

- Instead of parking meters, the system of paying for parking is much more entertaining: once you have finished your business and you turn your car on, someone in a yellow vest will chase after you flourishing a ticket whose price correlates to how long you were parked. Some people believe it’s optional to stop backing up and pay.

- Cell phone airtime is prepaid here and not on a monthly plan. To reload airtime, you physically purchase a scratch card from one of the brightly-vested airtime sellers found at nearly every corner of the city. If you request, the sellers will even scratch off the gray covering to reveal the code for you.

- I believe I have seen a lawnmower once or twice, but I still want to share this example because I’m sure it wasn’t the only time this happens: I once watched a man cutting a sizable plot of grass with a pair of office scissors.

- Instead of alarm systems (or sometimes in addition to), nearly every big office and well-to-do home employs a security guard to keep watch (read: sleep) at night. Guards for homes are rarely armed, while guards for offices are from official security companies and have a night stick or gun with them.

- And now for a hybrid situation: At the airport there is an automated ticket machine where you press a button at the entrance to take a ticket. Since the machine is too far from most cars, there is often a person there to press the button for the driver and hand over the ticket. I find this hysterical for some reason.

Now I must say that at times I appreciate and enjoy the benefits provided by the human over the machine. Instead of fumbling with a MetroCard on the bus and getting flustered if I don’t have enough credit, here I can wait for the conductor to ask me to pay and sometimes I even negotiate a cheaper fare if I’m going only a few stops. Then again, if I’m transferring to another bus line I don’t get the discount that my MetroCard would accord me.

It will be interesting to see if and how fast these jobs become phased out to machines and virtual systems as Rwanda progresses towards its goal of becoming a middle income country by 2020.

Psychology in Rwanda

At work, I recently had the exciting opportunity to manage a delegation of psychologists visiting Rwanda through the People to People program. As the official partner of People to People in East Africa, Eos Visions has received several delegations of professionals in the past few months, including family medicine doctors, nurses, dentists, lawyers, and mental health professionals. Alongside our visitors, learning about Rwanda through the lens of psychology was quite an eye-opening experience and made me aware of the importance of and acute need for psychological support and programs around the country.

To begin, I did some background research about the field of psychology in Rwanda that I believe provides a good introduction before I describe the visit: Following the 1994 genocide, trauma and shock were widespread and permeated all levels of society – individual, family, community, and nation. As would be expected, psychological destabilization affected nearly everyone who had witnessed, participated in, or survived the genocide. A 1999 study found that 80% of women in Rwanda showed signs of trauma. Even before its social fabric and institutions were destroyed over the course of the 100 days of killing, underdeveloped Rwanda was not equipped to effectively treat psychological disorders. The task of providing adequate counseling and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in the face of national destruction was daunting in years immediately after the genocide and even today has yet to be fully achieved. As of 2008, there were only three practicing psychiatrists in all of Rwanda. Over the past sixteen years, official health institutions and policies have developed gradually in an attempt to respond to the needs of Rwandans suffering from genocide-related trauma and other psychological disorders.

With this in mind, we began the professional program with a visit to the National Organization of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (NOUSPR), whose name turns out to not be a mistake of English grammar. As one of the volunteer coordinators explained to us, in Rwanda many people are in fact “survivors of psychiatry” because treatment can often be just as damaging or debilitating as one’s initial condition. This is further exacerbated by the fact that laws in Rwanda are extremely discriminatory against the mentally ill, prohibiting anyone with a diagnosis of being at all mentally unstable from entering into any legal contract. Our visitors had the chance to hear the testimonials of some NOUSPR members, learn about the challenges facing mentally disabled or ill people in Rwanda, learn about the organization’s goals for conducting research, and share their own initial impressions of the state of psychology in Rwanda in addition to personal stories.

Rwanda has only one inpatient psychiatric hospital, which is located just outside of the capital in a town called Ndera. Our visitors spent one afternoon visiting the Ndera Neuropsychiatric Hospital in order to learn about the center and give a presentation on a topic that the administration had requested: a practical training on drug and alcohol addiction. One of the visitors gave this presentation, which outlined concrete tools that practitioners can use to identify and treat alcoholism and addiction. The presentation was quite well attended by around 100 of the hospital’s staff and practitioners.

In an effort to help build academic and institutional capacity in the field of mass trauma treatment, the group visited the Kigali Health Institute and three of the visitors gave a presentation on mass trauma treatment. The audience consisted of psychologists, heads of departments related and unrelated to psychology, and some administrators of the Kigali Health Institute. What emerged from the ensuing discussion is the importance of incorporating psychological principles and awareness into all fields, even those like dentistry. I had never before thought about the psychological stress that comes with the vulnerability of sitting in a dentist’s chair.

The professional program concluded with a visit to the country’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in order to learn about the role and consideration of peace psychology in Rwanda. Delegates enjoyed a conversation with the Executive Secretary of the NURC, Dr. Jean Baptiste Habyalimana, in addition to his colleagues. It became clear that psychology fortunately played a large role in the design and implementation of NURC activities.

Our visiting psychologists sincerely enjoyed exchanging their expertise and learning about the state of psychology in Rwanda. I’m excited to be working with some committed delegates from this group and helping them remain involved in developing the field of psychology in Rwanda. The door is now open for even more mental health professionals to build on the foundation created and questions posed by this first group of pioneering visitors.

Re-posted partially from the Eos Visions blog

Chanukah number two in Rwanda! Which means another ridiculous D.I.Y. menorah fashioned by yours truly. (Click here in case you missed last year’s masterpiece.) I unfortunately can’t reuse last year’s bottle cap menorah because our cat, Keza, relieved herself on it and it was beyond salvaging.

This year, I was going for a flower theme and managed to create something relatively aesthetically pleasing with only aluminum foil, toothpicks, and duct tape. Check it out:

Flowers or swans? I'm not sure.

Close-up

Happy Chanukah!

November was a crazy month, in all good ways. Three of my best friends from school, Mimi, Meg, and Charlotte, came to visit me in Kigali for an epic East Africa reunion. Meg lives in Uganda, Charlotte was living in Kenya and has since gone back to the States, and Mimi lives in DC. Needless to say, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and had a blast catching up and adventuring. The epicness of our reunion was only amplified by an epic adventure we embarked on: hike up Nyiragongo, an active 11,400-ft volcano just west of Rwanda in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and sleep at the top.

The volcano is located near the city of Goma in Virunga National Park, a park known for volcanoes and gorilla tracking that stretches from eastern DR Congo to western Rwanda to southwestern Uganda.

Charlotte, me, and a hiking buddy with an old bullet-ridden sign bearing the former name of the park

We set out around 11 am with a group of 10 hikers, 8 porters, 3 armed guards, 1 cook, and 1 guide. It was quite an expedition.

At the base

Me, Head Ranger John, and Mimi

The hike up took about 5 hours. It rained for half an hour but besides that the weather was comfortable.

Meg and me, halfway up

It was breathtaking in many ways – from the views of plains behind us to the unique flowers around us to the steep hike that left us breathless at points.

Taking it all in...note the angle of the mountain

We reached the top with an hour left of sunrise. It was freezing at the top, much to my dismay. I was hoping that the lava lake would act as a big bonfire, but I was forced to resort to putting on my 5th layer of clothing.

Charlotte and me being welcomed to the top

The volcano crater was covered in smoke at first so it was hard to see the lava lake.

First view of the lava crater with our guide, Pychan

As night fell, it became much clearer.

Babushka and the lava lake

The permanent lava lake inside of Nyiragongo is the biggest in the world, with an estimated 282 million cubic feet of lava. In 1977 and 2002, the lava lake overflowed from the crater, destroying a large part of the city of Goma.

Close up of the lava lake

Mimi and me basking in the fiery glow

We spent the night in little wooden huts a few meters below the ridge of the crater. Each hut had two beds and so naturally the four of us piled into one hut. It helped generate some heat but not enough.

Huts built into the ridge of the crater

The morning views of the landscape around us were just as breathtaking as the lava lake. We were essentially looking out on the land from the same perspective as an airplane would.

View of a crater formed from an old volcano, with Lake Kivu in the background

This is currently my desktop background

We started the hike back down around 7 and it took about 4 hours. It was easier on the heart but just as difficult on the legs, especially since the lava rocks could be a bit slippery and crumbly.

On the way back to the border, we drove through Goma and walked around to take in the sights. The Congolese presidential election was just held this past Monday, November 28th, so while we were there we witnessed a frenzy of campaign posters and political demonstrations in the build up. There were around thirty candidates in the presidential election and the incumbent was Joseph Kabila, who took office in 2001 following the assassination of his father, former president Laurent Kabila.

Campaign billboard for incumbent President Kabila, promising ambitious modernization

Supporters of another candidate dancing on a float

Campaign posters lined the sides of the roads

A man asked me to photograph him supporting his candidate

If you are interested in going on this trip, the man to know is a local tour operator named Emmanuel Munganga. He did a great job organizing everything for us (visas, transport from Rwanda, permits, security updates, etc.) and gave us quite reasonable prices. His e-mail is emmanuelrufubya@yahoo.fr. This was truly an incredible adventure and will be something I remember forever!

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