Category Archives: Rwanda

Rwandan Youth Ending Stigma

Our Sunday began with a visit with the leaders of the WE-ACTx “Peer Parent” program. Peer Parents were created in 2010 with the hope of creating youth leaders from within the ranks of WE-ACTx youth, creating constructed family units of children and young adults with HIV-AIDS who could provide bonding and support in nurturing group settings. There are currently 12 groups ranging in age from 10- 15 – there are also some groups for younger adults from 24-30 as well.

The Peer Parents themselves are clinic patients at WE-ACTx as well, which gives them the ability to serve as very real role models for the children: healthy, strong young adults who can can their trust, educate them on the importance of taking their ARV meds, and give them hope about their future. The Peer Parents are truly an impressive community unto themselves – smart, charismatic young people with remarkable leadership skills and sensitive understanding of how to live with a serious chronic illness with dignity and purpose.

Since it was Sunday, we meet with all the Peer Parents for their “Supervision Sunday” session, which they devoted wholly to a discussion with our group.  Each of them spoke with us openly and honestly about the challenges and joys of being a “parent” to their “families” – helping them to open up about issues such as stress, depression, family issues, drug abuse, and the importance of taking their meds regularly.

Our session ended with the Peer Parents leading us all in a group game similar to the one we did on the previous day. In my previous post, I referred to the “power of silly games.” I know now they were much more than that. These kinds of exercises built trust, skill, self esteem, and most of all, I think, as sense of safety in a group that becomes an important surrogate family for many of these children.

After lunch we visited Islamic Center in Nyamyrambo, (one of the sites we visited four years ago) where WE-ACTx rents the extensive grounds for many of their ongoing youth programs. We brought along forty yoga mats that we brought from home, as WE-ACTx has recently began a successful youth yoga program, Project Air. Due to a shortage of mats, the younger children could only do standing poses – so our arrival with forty five mats occasioned no small excitement among the children.

They watched as we laid them down in rows; when we were done, they lept on them as if they were jumping into swimming pools. They then were led in a fabulous yoga session by Joseph (top clip) a Peer Parent and extremely talented youth yoga teacher, who clearly knew how to make yoga real and fun for young children.  It was almost as much fun for us to watch – especially knowing that many of the kids were clearly relishing the opportunity to show off their skills for their guests.

Immediately afterward, our group met with several of the Peer Parents who were part of self-created support/awareness group called YES (“Youth Ending Stigma”).  Because of their common experience of HIV/AIDS, these young people have experienced all too often the stigmas associated with this disease in Rwandan society. They formed YES in order to give support and strength to one another and to raise awareness as role models of healthy living with HIV.  They are also collaborating to write about their personal experiences in a narrative project in a work-in-progress book that they hope will demystify the issues around HIV-AIDS through personal testimony. (In the pic above: Peer Parent and YES  member Aime, who himself was once a part of the WE-ACTx youth program.)

I can’t say enough about these young leaders, possessed of formidable skills attained against all odds, now mentoring the children of their own community. As is sadly the case in so many communities throughout the US, I can only begin to imagine how far they’d go in applying their gifts if they lived a society that afforded them greater opportunities.  In the meantime, they’re making a very real and transformative difference, child, by child, here in Rwanda. And that in itself is truly an inspiration.

Below, two more amazing people who truly inspire us: WE-ACTX’s Mardge Cohen (Left) and Mary Fabri (right).


From Joy to Sorrow and Back Again

Thte first part of our day was spent at the WE-ACTx Nyaconga center outside Kigali. Among other things, this site is used for a new peer youth program called “Peer Parenting” in which older children work with the younger children of the area – almost all of the orphans and either infected or affected by HIV-AIDS.

Mary Fabri told me that before WE-ACTx started working with the kids of Nyaconga, the children were obviously listless and outwardly depressed. This description certainly did not square with our experience of them yesterday. We spent the better part of the morning with them playing organized group games led by two youth teens – amazingly charismatic and talented team leader “peer parents.” One of the games seemed to be a Rwandan version of “Duck, Duck Goose.” Another bore a striking resemblance to the Israeli folk dance “”Yesh Lanu Tayesh.”

By the end, we were fairly exhausted (the adults anyways) but thoroughly enjoying each others’ company. (See pic above).  I’ll never again underestimate the power of silly fun to bond people t0gether instantaneously. More importantly,  I think it was an important testimony to the power of medicine (in this case, life-saving ARVs) along with community/leadership development to realize a more holistic vision of healing.

Another unexpected treat of the visit: we got to see a lovely mosaic at the center created by girls who participated in a WE-ACTx exchange project that brought teenagers from Rwanda to Chicago and girls from Chicago Freedom School to Rwanda. This mosaic (see detail above) was one of their joint projects. Note the Chicago skyline on the bottom left corner!

After lunch we made a return visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre (above), which serves as Rwanda’s national genocide museum and memorial. Like my last visit, I found it to be one of the most powerful museums of its kind. It doesn’t have the technical bells and whistles of more contemporary museums, but simply tells the story with straightforward simplicity, punctuated by video testimonies of survivors. I’ve always been moved and impressed that it contains one entire floor dedicated to other genocides throughout human history – a necessary statement that no one’s pain is disconnected from another.

The Centre is also the site of a mass grave of 250,000 who were slain during the genocide which, of course, makes it much more that a simple museum – it is truly sacred ground. It was the first real connection to the genocide for our group on the trip – needless to say, an enormously difficult – if important – part of our visit.

But as is often the case in Rwanda, we went from joy to sorrow, and back to joy again.  After the Centre visit, we decided to swing by the art studio of William, the young man who directed the mural project at the WE-ACTx offices yesterday. He had told us if we had time, he’d love to show us his work.

While we expected a modest one-man art studio, we were delighted, upon arrival, to discover that William was part of the Ivuka Arts Center – a collective of seventeen artists that provides a home for work and sponsors art and dance workshop for Rwandan youth in the community.

While we were at Ivuka, we had the opportunity to see several of the artists in action and viewed much of their work.  Coming here directly from the genocide center, I was particularly struck that none of the art directly evoked the pain of Rwanda’s recent history. Rather, there was an obvious pride and joy in Rwandan identity and culture. Given the high quality of the art, were particularly amazed to learn that these artists are largely self taught.  Clearly, this is much more than an artists collective. Quite by chance, we happened upon another inspiring Rwandan community development project!

From the Ivuka website:

Since its inception in 2007, Ivuka has become the face of Rwandan art to both the national and international communities alike. In the last 2 years Ivuka has become the most sought-after fine arts destination for expatriates and diplomats in Rwanda. Yet despite this incredible success, Ivuka Arts Founder and Director Collin Sekajugo still envisions the studio primarily as a place where art is used to change lives.

Through Ivuka’s mentoring program, artists who formerly struggled to make a living are honing their skills, finding platforms for exposure, and gaining name recognition. Children who formerly begged on the streets are finding hope and educational opportunities through RwaMakondera, Ivuka’s traditional dance troupe.

In a very real sense, Ivuka has become more than “The Rebirth of Contemporary Rwandan Art”.  It has become the start of a bright new life for each person it touches.

We spend a wonderful few hours at Ivuka, which also included significant art purchases and extended playing with Rwandan children who had been attending a workshop. Below is a picture  of our friend William (white shirt, fifth from right) and Emanuel (black shirt, left), who is a central leader of Ivuka and its programs.

Sometimes, the most remarkable experiences on your journey are the ones that aren’t on the itinerary…

Back in Kigali with WE-ACTx

Our first full day in Rwanda was spent at the offices of our good friends at WE-ACTx in Kigali. I’ve written extensively about this amazing organization and it’s been wonderful to see the growth and success that they’ve accomplished in the past four years since we’ve been here.

The overall AIDS rate in Rwanda is currently at 3% – with lower numbers in rural areas and higher levels in urban centers.  Generally the emphasis is shifting from direct treatment to maintenance (health workers making  sure folks are taking their meds) and AIDS education and awareness, trauma treatment, and an expanded youth program.  WE-ACT-x has grown to the point now that former youth participants are no working as counselors and a new youth yoga program is meeting with great success. (Among the things we brought over with us from Chicago: 30+ yoga mats…)

We spent the day at the WE-ACTx office volunteering: sorting meds (that’s out teenage contingent above showing off their handiwork) and helping to paint a colorful mural in a new youth library (next down) Also engaged in some very interesting conversations with workers and locals about the complex realities of Rwanda post-genocide. More on that later.

Today, more quality time with WE-ACTx and a return visit to the Kigali genocide museum. Stay tuned.

Coming Soon: Return to Rwanda

With fellow delegation particiant Hannah Gelder and the children of the Amahoro youth program (supported by CHABHA)

For the next two weeks I’ll be blogging from Rwanda where, I will be joining fifteen other participants in JRC’s third service delegation to Africa.  We’re returning to visit and volunteer with our good friends at WE-ACTx, a visionary NGO that works to increase women’s and children’s access to HIV testing, care, treatment, support, education and training throughout Rwanda. We’ll also spend time with CHABHA, another important NGO that funds and supports orphans and other children affected by HIV/AIDS in Rwanda and Burundi.

You may remember that our last trip included a visit to an infamous massacre site as well as conversations with individuals who briefed us on the latest efforts to heal Rwandan society in the wake of the devastating 1994 genocide.  While it has not been a straight path (nor has it ever been) I do believe that the Rwandan example has much to teach the world about how to move past tribal enmity and the tragic legacy of colonialism.

I’m particularly thrilled that this time around our group will include six teenagers, who will be spending significant time with Rwanda youth programs supported by WE-ACTx and CHABHA. As a father of a teenager who attended our last African delegation, I can personally attest that these kinds of service trips can be genuinely life-changing experiences for young people.

As before, I’ll be posting regularly about our experiences If you’d like to read my posts from our last delegation, go to the Categories drop-down menu on the right and click on “JRC Africa Trip 2008.” Reading through these posts brought back some powerful memories for me and I’m eager to create new ones on our most current trip.

Stay tuned!

A Rabbi Dad Kvells!

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It’s Mazel Tov time. This past Shabbat, our family celebrated our son Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah with our family, friends and incredible congregational community. A joyous kvell-o-rama!

As you may remember from earlier blog posts, Jonah attended JRC’s congregational trip to Rwanda/Uganda this past summer. In honor of his Bar Mitzvah, he’s been selling Mirembe Kawomera coffee every week at our congregation and he’s also raising money for our Fair Trade fund to help the Mirembe farmers with their capacity building. If you’d like to share in our naches, buy coffee!

Click below for some remarks from Jonah:

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JRC Says Farewell to Africa

On our final day in Africa, we visited the Nankusi and Namanyonyi primary schools, both of which are supported by the Peace Kawomera’s fair trade social premiums. Both schools are engaged in building projects to create more classrooms and more essential educational resources. In each school we saw overcrowded classes (many cramming in over 100 students) and most classrooms are not even equipped with a chalkboard. Similarly, in both schools these important construction projects are currently stalled out due to lack of funding, materials and workers. At Namanyonyi, we were told that they needed the equivalent of $2,000.00 to finish the project.

We’ve heard these kinds of appeals several times on our trip and they are challenging to the core. On the one hand, in the face of such direct need, it’s all you can do to not take out the money and just donate it on the spot. On the other hand, this would clearly raise more questions than it would solve: why is this school more deserving than the one down the road? What kinds of social tensions would you be exacerbating by privileging one one school over another? How would we ensure that the money would be used in the way we were told? What kind of unhealthy power dynamic are we reinforcing when we throw money around in this way? We’ve discussed these kinds of questions a great deal as a group and in the end we’ve resolved to live with the difficulties and complexities that attend the phenomenon of world poverty, arguably the most intractable issue facing the world today.

One important thing we do take away from these experiences is the resolve to support NGOs on the ground that we know are making a real difference in the lives of real people. We have been transformed by our relationships with organizations like WE-ACTx, the Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities and Peace Kawomera, who are leading the charge to create better futures for the communities they serve.

If we have learned anything on this trip, it is that we much redouble our resolve to support their efforts and to encourage others to do so as well. In a world that is so desperately in need of heroes and role models, these are the ones who truly inspire: people like Dr. Mardge Cohen, Samuel Watalatsu, JJ Keki, and so many, many others who work largely off the PR radar screen, but whose vision and drive are bringing hope and change in the areas of the world that need it most.

We’re coming home now, but our work is really just getting started…

Sustainable Development from Rwanda to Uganda

We’re in Uganda now, after one night in Kampala and a four hour plus bus ride to the town of Mbale. Before I report on Uganda, tho, I want to write about our final visit in Rwanda: a stop at the Millennium Village Project in Bugasera (which is in the same district as the Nyamata genocide site we visited last week). MVP is the product of the United Nations and has been piloted in several locations throughout the developing world with the aim of helping communities reach the UN Millennium Goals.

The MVP in Rwanda presents an extremely impressive model of community development. We visited a district primary school – that’s me and Rich Katz above with some of the students. We visited on the last day of school (the young girl to my right is holding her report card). We also visited an MVP health clinic and a women’s craft cooperative that is helping to build economic capacity for the area. (That’s Rhonda Stein below, learning basket weaving from one of the coop members).

Our first stop in Uganda was along similar lines. Uganda Crafts in Kampala is a Fair Trade org that creates and sustains jobs for the disadvantaged throughout Uganda, Kenya and the Congo – employing women, the disabled, orphans, and people living with HIV. Before visiting the shop, we sat with Betty and Rose, who help run the project and described its genesis and evolution in depth. On the right is Lauren Parnell, who will be working with Uganda Crafts for the coming year and is our guide (with her husband John) for the rest of our sojourn in Uganda. We met Lauren through her work in Chicago with the Interfaith Youth Core.

We have a full day tomorrow. Stay tuned…

We Are Strong, We Are Healthy, We Are Fine…

The highlight of our Sunday was a visit to the Islamic Center in Nyamyrambo, where we visited with the WE-ACTx children’s program. The young people from our group had already spent the morning with the WE-ACTx young people (above) while the adults went to visit with Mardge Cohen and several interns at their home in Centre Ville, Kigali.

When we caught up with the kids later on in the afternoon, they were all having a fabulous time at the Islamic Center field, playing Frisbee and soccer with joyful abandon. We joined them with a handful of hula hoops that Elaine and Kelsey Waxman had brought along. Aduts and kids alike proceeded to play together for over an hour before the WE-ACTx children’s program put on a special presentation they had prepared for us.

The children’s program is directed by a remarkable young man named Bertin Mulinda Shambo (bottom pic, in the yellow shirt) who guided it from a handful of kids to over 250. Virtually all of the children are either infected with HIV or have been orphaned by the AIDS pandemic. Bertin explained to us how many of these children originally came to WE-ACTx: angry and profoundly bitter about their fates. Seeing these engaged and confident children today, you would never even dream that they were living with HIV/AIDS. As one teenager from the program told our group, “We are strong, we are healthy, we are fine.”

At the presentation, we were graciously welcomed and treated to a girls’ dance performance. Our group reciprocated with the skills of JRCs teenage members Aaron Nachsin (juggling above) and Kelsey Waxman (hoop dancing). We stayed and visited with one another for hours afterwards, several of us enjoying a marathon (and steadily growing) game of volleyball.

Moday was our day to sample a bit of the natural beauty of Rwanda. One half of our group went gorilla trekking at Virunga National Park while the rest of us went on a brief safari to the Akagera National Park in the South Eastern part of the country where had seemingly endless interactions wtih impala, hippos, giraffes, and baboons. After lunch, our group visited the hospital run by the venerable Partners in Health – a state of the art community-based hospital founded by Paul Farmer. It was, as expected, beyond impressive – especially after our experience in Kigali’s public hospital.

Tomorrow is our last day in Rwanda and then we’re off to Uganda. I’m all too mindful that I’ve only scratched the surface with these posts – there’s so much more to say and so many more in our group that have stories to tell. Suffice to say we’ll all miss this beautiful country and its amazing people…

Guest Posts from Rwanda

There have been several instances on this trip in which smaller groups have opted for side trips separate from our main itinerary. I’ve asked two participants to share their experiences with you – our first report comes from JRC member Rich Katz, who visited a Rwandan organic farm with fellow JRC’ers Ray Grossman and Jonathan Nachsin (above). Here’s Rich’s report:

“It’s Milk – Not Meat”

One of the best examples of a grass-roots effort to improve the lives of poor and low-income families and individuals in Ruanda the work of Richard Munyerango, the Managing Director of the GAKO Organic Farming Training Center just outside of Kigali. We first met Richard when he participated in the Earth Box training session we conducted at the Remera Center earlier in the week. At that time, he invited us to his farm and training center to see what he is doing to promote more nutritious diets for the people who cannot afford them.

The Center was started to help the widows of genocide and children who are heads of households, and it has expanded since. By working with local associations who suggest the names of participants, he invites eighty people at a time to his training center for a month to learn organic farming techniques.

It is his opinion that people will be able to reduce the expense of their medications if they eat better food, which they can grow locally without the use of expensive chemical fertilizers. In addition, he sends trainers to each province of Rwanda to work through the local health agencies to promote organic farming practices. Since its inception, the Center has trained over a thousand people all over the country.

Richard’s farm consists of two small plots of land, gently sloping down a verdant hillside. At the upper end, he has built a modern classroom building and two dormitories for men and women. We were most impressed, however, with the number of small demonstration/experimental earthen mounds that he developed, each of which is devoted to growing a particular fruit or vegetable. We saw mounds that were growing cabbages, leeks, strawberries, spinach, kale, peppers and so much more. There were also small areas devoted to growing corn and bananas.

At the lower end of the property, Richard has a demonstration project for training people how to use cow manure and other animal products to produce compost, which he uses to amend the clay soil that is so prevalent here in this part of Rwanda. It is this composed material that makes the mounds so productive. He derives the compost from cow manure (hence the title of my post).

We learned so much from Richard about his method of organic farming, and at the same time we were pleased to be able to help him better understand the process we use in the States (using earthworms to create compost). He appeared to be very interested and excited about the possibility of adding this practice to his already considerable the curriculum. We also mentioned the nascent practice in the US of developing farming co-ops to connect growers and buyers, so that the farmer has a reliable source of capital and owners/consumers have a reliable source of organic produce. All in all, this was a very valuable and mutually beneficial experience.

Our second report comes from Kelsey Waxman, who attended a yoga group (above) run by WE-ACTz at the Remera center while the rest of the group went to the Nyamata genocide site. She was joined by two other JRC members: her mother (and inspired trip organizer) Elaine along with Beth Lange.

Here’s an excerpt from Kelsey’s travel journal:

We were then dropped off a Remera again: me, Mom and Beth for the afternoon yoga class. We went out on the cement porch with ten women, all chatting giddily in Kinyarwanda. They all had on African print fabric yoga pants and there was much disputation about when to start.

Two women led the class through a basic primary Ashtanga set, and the women laughed, chatted and helped each other through the entire thing. It was apparent that some of them had done this before. Some were more flexible than anyone I’d ever practiced with.

After quite a few laughs, they asked us to teach them some poses. My mom, being an experienced yogi, led them through some crazy poses like pigeon, headstand and the boat. The faces of agony and hilarity some of the women made during the boat pose were so funny and the faces of the other women made those imitating them sent us all into giggle fits. More and more people came around and either watched or participated, laughing along with us,

It was the end of the class, during Shavasna, corpse pose. You’re supposed to be completely quiet…like a corpse, but everyone chatted like little girls through the entire ten minutes. It was so funny, everyone pouring through the doors, sharing laughs and yoga mats. After, Beth pulled out the camera and we took many, many pictures with our new yogi friends.

“Amahoro” Means Shalom

On Shabbat we began our day with a study and discussion of the Torah portion – the central themes of Parshat Pinchas (zealous violence and its complex aftermath) were uncannily appropriate to our experiences of the past few days.

The central experience of our Saturday was a visit to CHABHA (Children Affected By HIV/AIDS) – an NGO that supports youth-led initiatives serving children left vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. A myriad of local children turned out for our visit. CHABHA’s Rwanda director, Richard Mutabazi greeted us and welcomed us on behalf of the organization, and helped us to converse with the children. As has been the case everywhere we went, our presence in the town caused a great sensation: children sprinted up to us as their shouts of “Muzungu!” (“white people”) filled the air.

These particular children were part of a local youth-led initiative called Amahoro (“Peace” in Kiryawanda). Amahoro presents a remarkable model of young Rwandan leaders who support and educate children orphaned by AIDS. The AMAHORO Association now counts more than 2500 orphaned children, many of whom live with one parent or other family members.

By far the highlight of our visit was a dance performance by the children of AMAHORO. As we watched, transfixed, the girls went up to our group and invited us to join them. As I danced with one particularly gifted dancer, huge shouts of laughter went up from the crowd (and I don’t think they were responding to my dancing prowess…)

We had a similar experience in JRC’s last trip to Africa – I remember all too well how dancing can be the “great equalizer” for peoples from vastly different social contexts. I guess that is my fancy way of saying it was so wonderful to connect with these children in this joyous way, even for this brief moment in time.

PS: Another member of our group, Hannah Gelder (above), is blogging about our experiences as well. I encourage you to read her very eloquent personal impressions of JRC’s journey…