Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

I just peeked back at one of the first posts I wrote after arriving in Kigali in late August. In it, I listed the following non-work-related goals that I had set for this year: “become proficient in Kinyarwanda, make friends with local Rwandans, visit a few of the Great Lakes and nearby African countries (hopefully to see Meg in Uganda and Rachel in Kenya!), never feel too cut off from my friends and family back in the States and around the world, and if possible find or create some kind of community here.”

With the exception of visiting Rachel in Kenya (which I’m planning to do in early March!!), I can proudly say I’ve accomplished all those goals so far. I’ve even managed to find/create several different communities here.

Here are some of my personal goals for 2011:

– Do something new every day. New adventures can be as small as walking a different way to work or trying to bake cookies on my stove and as big as traveling to a new country or climbing a volcano (it’s possible in western Rwanda!).

– Get back into my healthy groove: go running more regularly, eat less salt (or just balance it out with more potassium), and take vitamins regularly.

– Take more photographs and, internet permitting, post more of them here.

As for my work at Generation Rwanda, I’m really excited about 2011. Since two new English language assistants are joining Generation Rwanda, I will no longer be in charge of teaching English – a welcome change, given that I have really enjoyed devoting my energy to other programmatic planning and coordinating. I just finished writing my workplan through June and there will be a number of interesting projects and initiatives under my supervision – some of which I was assigned and others that I proposed myself. Here are some of the 2011 highlights that I’m looking forward to working on:

– Coordinate and implement another iteration of the entrepreneurship training in May.

– Create, develop, and implement a social entrepreneurship training workshop for students who have completed entrepreneurship training. I’ve been gathering materials from Ashoka, Schwab Foundation, and Change.org. For any social entrepreneurs reading, please feel free to share any other resources that would be helpful.

– Work with Junior Chamber International – Rwanda Chapter (the organization whose members volunteered to run the November entrepreneurship training) to incorporate a JCI Rwanda sub-chapter made up of Generation Rwanda students.

– Conduct research at our 10 partner universities to assess the programming and opportunities offered. Analyze how Generation Rwanda’s programming may be filling in gaps, duplicating, or offering superior programming that institutions can learn from (in areas like career development, counseling, critical thinking, clubs, debate, English, leadership, library, and research).

– Plan and implement Life after Generation Rwanda workshop for our graduating students.

– Plan and implement a series of workshops on leadership.

– Spearhead a Generation Rwanda Debate Club and become the club’s adviser.

– Assist the Country Director and Program Director in selecting our next batch of scholarship students. For any Rwandan students interested in applying for our university scholarship program, feel free to e-mail me at helaina@generationrwanda.org. The application process begins in April.

– Continue to be the in-house photographer for all Generation Rwanda events, workshops, and student profiles.

2011 promises to be quite a busy and fulfilling year. It’s off to a tasty start – I’ve been experimenting with new restaurants and home-made recipes/concoctions. One of my proudest moments has been successfully frying and flipping a Rolex (a scrumptious chapati cooked into an omelette with sauteed onions and cabbage, invented at Makerere University in Uganda).

Another omen that this year will be stimulating and fulfilling is that earlier this week, I attended an incredible reception and photo exhibit put on by Through the Eyes of Children: The Rwanda Project. 19 students at the Imbabazi Orphanage in western Rwanda were given the chance to study photography for 10 years. The stunning exhibit is the culmination of their talented work. The award-wining photo on the website’s home page was taken with a disposable camera by Jacqueline, a student who was 8 at the time.

One more link to check out: The New York Times compiled 2010: The Year in Pictures, a breathtaking and informative photo essay of the major events and disasters of 2010.

Today’s new adventure: I’m heading out to pick up my first order of bagels from a Rwandan woman who makes the only bagels available in Kigali (and probably all of Rwanda). I almost ordered some Everything bagels until I learned that they actually include every possible ingredient: onion, garlic, salt, cinnamon, raisins, and seasoning. I might have to give in to my curiosity and taste one some day this year…


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Translation: Happy new year! May it be filled with milk and honey!

I hope everyone reading had a lovely holiday season, wherever in the world you were. I’m back in warm and sunny Kigali and finally recovered enough from my jet lag to write a coherent blog post. Reflecting on 2010, it was quite an eventful year for me. Here are some of the highlights:

– Graduating from Tufts in May (with highest honors!)

– Training for and running in the Boston Marathon. As many of you know, I didn’t make it past Mile 9 because a foot injury that I thought had healed reared its ugly head with a vengeance. Regardless, the experience of training as part of the Tufts President’s Marathon Challenge Team and pushing my own physical and mental limits was truly awesome. (And unique – I don’t think I’ll attempt another marathon.)

– Working on the Haiti earthquake relief effort at Tufts. A large part of my senior year was devoted to being a crisis mapper and evaluator for Ushahidi Haiti, the co-chair of Tufts Haiti Relief Coalition, and a recipient and implementer of RESPE: Haiti‘s 100 Projects for Peace initiative in northern Haiti. As a longtime actor and advocate for Haiti’s development, I did my best to put my Haiti expertise to use and contribute to recovery projects. Sadly the earthquake wasn’t the only devastating setback the country faced in 2010. Let’s hope that 2011 will be a year of real recovery and milk and honey for Haiti.

– Moving to Kigali to start working with Generation Rwanda. The last four months of 2010 were unbelievably challenging, invigorating, and enjoyable.  I’ve actually maintained my Tufts-era levels of intellectual stimulation, curiosity, and fulfillment – a feat that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to manage after graduating. Establishing a life in Kigali, Rwanda is not something I could have predicted a few years ago and I’m thrilled to have a good chunk of 2011 left to continue my adventure.

– Meeting new friends here in Rwanda. Colleagues, neighbors, passersby, and random contacts have become some of my closest friends here who have helped me feel welcome and comfortable in my home away from home.

Looking ahead: what will be my milk and honey this year?

First, on a morbid note, I hope the world doesn’t come to an end this year. I know the Mayans predicted 2012 but with all these birds falling from the sky and fish spontaneously dying – now in Sweden, Italy, Maryland, Brazil, New Zealand, and Arkansas – I’m a bit fearful. Hopefully experts can get to the bottom of this and make it into a conclusive and powerful environmental wake-up call.

As for my milk and honey for 2011, I have a few resolutions and goals but I’m still reflecting and refining them…tune in next time!

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Murakoze cyane!

Translation: Thank you very much!

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope my fellow Americans (and everyone else Thanksgiving-inclined) enjoyed a day of feasting, time with family and friends, and of course napping. I had quite an exciting Thanksgiving: I was invited to the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda’s residence for a potluck dinner. It was an incredible gastronomic experience that almost made up for missing my family’s home-cooked meal, complete with an American turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables, fresh salad, pumpkin pie, apple pie, whipped cream, and more. I never imagined I would enjoy such an American feast and I can’t say I’m disappointed that there was no roasted goat or rice and beans. The ambassador and his wife were lovely and it was great to get to know some of the embassy staff over a savory banquet.

Yesterday was also the three month mark of my being in Rwanda. In some respects the time has flown by and in others it has gone at a fairly normal pace. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share who and what I’ve especially appreciated over these past three months:

I’m thankful for my family – my parents, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – who have supported me without fail throughout all of my crazy adventures.

I’m thankful for my friends all over the world who are there for me no matter what and who always make the extra effort to stay in touch.

I’m thankful for my new friends, neighbors, and colleagues here in Rwanda who have made me feel welcome and who have helped to create another home here.

I’m thankful for Princeton-in-Africa for giving me this unique opportunity to work with Generation Rwanda and truly immerse myself in Rwanda.

I’m thankful for the Generation Rwanda students who inspire, encourage, and teach me every day.

I’m thankful for all of the teachers I’ve had over the years – professors and mentors at Tufts, my high school teachers, friends, mentors, and colleagues in the U.S., Haiti, Uganda, Rwanda, Switzerland, Nicaragua, and more, who have all helped shape the path I’m on and the way I see the world.

I’m thankful for the incredible educational opportunities I have had my whole life. And I’m thankful that my education continues every day.

I’m thankful to have been born into a loving and supportive family. I’m also thankful to have been born in a country where there are systems in place that usually work to help people succeed.

I’m thankful to have the opportunity and the drive to help other people around the world where there aren’t systems in place to help them succeed.

I’m thankful for having enough food on my plate every day.

I’m thankful for my health. (With the unfortunate exception of having developed an avocado intolerance.)

I’m thankful to have running water, electricity, and internet (and especially Skype).

I’m thankful for the existence of washing machines and dishwashers. I hope to be reunited with them soon.

I’m thankful for the mosquito net above my bed.

I’m thankful for the delicious passion fruit ambrosia here.

I’m thankful for all of you who read my blog!

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As you can imagine, I stand out here. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing “muzungu!” about once every ten minutes when I’m out in public. Curious about the etymology of my new moniker, I did some Wikipedia research and here’s what i found:

Mzungu(pronounced “Mmm-zoo-ngooo”) is the southern, central and eastern African term for “person of European descent“. Literally translated, it means “white person”. The term was first used by Africans to describe early European explorers…The etymology of the word stems from a contraction of words meaning “one who wanders aimlessly” (from Swahili words zunguzunguzunguzungukazungushamzungukaji – meaning to go round and round) and was coined to describe European explorers, missionaries and slave traders who traveled through East African countries in the 18th century.”

I suppose it’s a fitting term for me, given that I’m often wandering, traveling, strolling, or looking for something that turns out to be far from where my directions took me. (I’d say I now have about 70% of Kigali’s layout down pat but venturing through the other 30% does usually end up in aimless wanderings.)

It’s an interesting phenomenon to always be on display. As I was recently discussing with Mary and Caitlin, this must be what being famous feels like: people approach me all the time to shake my hand, greet and welcome me to their country, hand me their babies, pet my hair, sometimes even ask for a picture with me, and take the time to practice whatever English they know, regardless of the time of day. (I can’t help chuckling when people shout “Good morning!” when they pass me at 9 pm.)

It used to bother me more to always be pointed out but now I’m fairly unfazed and simply take it as a greeting from curious people. Rwandan friends of mine tell me it isn’t meant to be offensive at all – shouting “muzungu!” is usually intended as a way of welcoming a foreigner, showing excitement or surprise, or just trying to get our attention. I equate it to the way kids love pointing out an airplane – though they’ve usually seen it before, it’s still exciting and a fun thing to share with friends.

Not only do muzungus obviously stand out for aesthetic reasons, our skin color also comes with unshakable implications. What gets tiring is the way that some people, mostly street children, see my white skin and immediately see a dollar sign. I’ve also grown accustomed to but not as comfortable with hearing “Muzungu! Give me money!” I like to respond with “Umwirabura (black person)! Give me money!” That usually sufficiently confuses them and gives me enough time to weave my way into a crowd or dart across the street.

It’s a nice relief to occasionally find myself surrounded by mostly muzungus, which isn’t too uncommon with the bustling ex-pat community here in Kigali. One such case of bizarre but blissful blending in was a trivia night that I went to a few weeks ago at Sol e Luna, an Italian restaurant featuring a twinkling vista of the whole city, outdoor sprawling canopies that made me feel like I was in a Mediterranean tree house, and, of course, muzungu-priced pizzas. Caitlin, Mary, and I came in somewhere around 9th place out of about 20 teams.

I can’t claim that I now know how all minorities feel because being a minority in a place like the U.S. or Europe often comes with different implications. However I can say I know what it feels like to be a permanent outsider – though it comes with its stresses and frustrations, it’s a good feeling to know that I’m expanding my comfort zone every day.

In other news, Happy 10/10/10!

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