Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Mountain Gorillas

Today was one of the best days of my entire life. No exaggeration. I saw, for the first time, the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. Everything anyone has told me about them is true--they are majestic, beautiful, peaceful creatures with an intelligence that is mysteriously like our own. What an exhilarating experience!

We awoke at 5 AM to drive to the briefing point and meet with our trackers at the base of the Virungas.  There are 7 groups of gorillas habituated to humans, and only 8 people per day are allowed to see each individual group. You are only given one hour with the gorillas so as not to disturb them. While we waited to be placed in our trekking group of 8, traditional Intore dancers played the drums and danced for our entertainment. I was too excited to pay much attention. Eventually, we were put in a group with a couple from Australia and three young people from India. Our two guides, Patrick and Francis, briefed us on which group we were going to see. The Agashya group. A gorilla family of 25 strong. There is one silverback, named Agashya, 9 females, 9 babies, and 6 juveniles. I could not have chosen a more ideal group to visit.

the first gorilla I ever saw: Agashya, the silverback
We drove to the base of the volcanoes and were handed walking sticks to help us up the steep trail. We began the climb through the farms that are planted right up to the base of the national park. We passed through a wall made of volcanic stone and emerged into a dense montane rainforest. We travelled up the slope of the mountain through the nettles and clasping vines. The slick red mud slowed us down. Suddenly, one of the trackers stopped and told us to take off all our bags. Apparently we had reached the gorillas!!!! You could see evidence that they were near due to smashed plants and little trails where they must have walked. Little did I know they were just up the hillside, hidden in the vegetation. Adrenaline began pulsing through my veins. As we slowly inched around the dense nettles, I saw him. Agashya, the massive sliverback, was standing tall above the plants looking pensively at us. I can't really describe what it is like to see a mountain gorilla for the first time on those steep mountains. It makes the Serengeti seem paltry.

The trackers chopped through the thistles and brush with machetes and we followed close behind. Soon, you could see more of the gorillas. A young female was feeding in the vegetation just a few meters away, there were a couple females near Agashya. You could hear more gorillas ambling up the hill. It could not have been more perfect. They are so beautiful. The female feeding below me stared into my eyes for several moments...I couldn't help but think that she was sincerely telling me hello.

Whenever Agashya moved, the females followed him through the brush. I was close to the front of the group and got a wonderful view of all that happened. At one point, a young gorilla marched up the hill just a meter away from me. I think I held my breath the whole time. There were three little gorillas playing in a stand of bamboo--swinging from the branches, piling on top of each other. So cute.

looking at me
We followed the family as they slowly moved along. Every moment was precious. Just as the hour we had with them was almost up, Agashya lay down in the bushes to rest. I swear we were just a meter away from the 200 kg gorilla. He would look at us occasionally, he seemed content and peaceful. I had no idea we would ever get this close. It was indescribable.

swinging through the trees!

baby baby baby

The gorilla stared at my dad for the longest time

baby gorilla

Agashya means "something special"

little one

Mt. Sabyinyo

The gorillas are just up the hill behind me

My gorilla trekking certificate
All too soon, our hour expired. This is an experience I will carry with me to tell my children and grandchildren. An experience of a lifetime. Am I allowed to be this happy?

Friday, June 29, 2012

Lake Kivu

Where am I right now? In Ruhengeri, at the base of the Virunga Volcanoes--home to the mountain gorillas. I will be off into the jungle with my parents to see them for the first time tomorrow! Truly my dream come true. 

They loved the hair

Three days ago, I spent more time in Kigali at the EWB Rwandan Orphans Project orphanage. We played with the kids, did crafts with the kids, saw the new site where the EWB team will build new facilities. 

The past two days I have spent at L'esperance orphanage near the shores of Lake Kivu and about an hour and a half drive from Kibuye. We left Kigali on the 27th of June with a driver, Javin, to make the journey to the east side of Rwanda. We began to climb and climb as the hills increased in slope. The country is beautiful—a mosaic of majestic hills terraced by small cultivated land squares. Although this is said to be the dry season, everything is a deep emerald green and looks as though it may once have been a lush rainforest. However, while this land may be curiously beautiful, every piece of it that I have seen is transformed by humans.  Humans have consumed whatever environment used to be and replaced it with tiers of farmlands and mud shacks. What true Rwanda once looked like, I can only imagine.

The orphanage sits on top of a tall hill overlooking the massive Lake Kivu in a very rural area of Rwanda. Besides the draw of the orphanage, no foreigners ever come to this place. There isn’t even a true town nearby. The hills around the area are still covered in crop fields, but the homes are more scattered. The landscape is spectacular here. I wish I could do it justice, but it is too stunning to describe. 

Lake Kivu
The orphanage
The orphanage manager, Victor, met us as our car pulled into the gates. He was gracious enough to give us a detailed tour of the 126 children orphanage grounds. The orphans live in colorful homes atop a steep hill. The orphanage owns the entire hill that it sits on top of. On that hill, the orphans cultivate mangos, pineapples, and guava plants. Victor told us that the orphanage is the largest exporter of fruit in the entire country. How they can work the fields on such steep slopes is beyond me. Victor is hoping to make the orphanage entirely self-sustaining within the next two years. A true entrepreneur, he has an infinite amount of ideas on how to make the place run and bring in money: from an ecolodge hotel on the lake shore to selling a unique “Lake Kivu” cheese from excess cow milk and exporting dried pineapples to sell at Whole Foods. The orphanage seems to be thriving, at least from a business standpoint. After the tour, we were able to talk with some of the older girls who were doing homework and play with some little ones in the nursery. Once the sun had dropped below the hills, the children began to sing. They sang and danced for us. They seemed so happy...

The pineapple crop on the hill--I picked my very own pineapple
swimming in Lake Kivu
The next morning, Victor took my parents and I on a hike down to the lake shore and then to the town marketplace. It was difficult not to slip in the red African dirt, especially since the area had had a massive rain just three days ago. As we descended, there was a dense stand of eucalyptus forest to our right. You could here the buzz of insects and piecing bird calls from within the thicket. Victor told us that a troop of vervet monkeys roams the forest and can sometimes be seen near the lake shore. We passed some people working on their hillside farms, but compared to the rest of Rwanda, the place seemed abandoned and isolated. As we walked, you could see much of the area- a sweeping landscape with vivid green hills and the smooth blue lake that was so clear, you could see the clouds reflected from above on the surface. It was breathtaking. We reached an open grassy plot of land on the shore of the lake. Minus the sounds of the insects and birds, it was quiet. A welcome respite to crowded Rwanda. Victor almost immediately dove into the lake fully clothed. Our travel books had warned us never to swim in any water for fear of parasites and schistosomiasis infections. Victor assured us it was safe because it was so isolated from human contact. My dad and I decided to brace the swim. I slipped in the water. It was lovely swimming around and looking up at the hills and across the expanse of water into the distance. I hope I don’t regret that swim later!

bath time

We walked along the lake shore through a rice field to the small town center. Victor taught us that “Amakuru” means “how are you” or more literally “are you still alive” and the response is “Nimeza” or “yes.” The town center (was it even a town?) consisted of a little row of shops and restaurants down the street and then an open, flat area where women were sorting clothes and sheets of sorghum seeds were spreading out to dry in the sun. We took four motorcycle taxis ("motos") and jostled our way back up the hills to the orphanage. 

The motos

Making paper boxes

Putting on baby Sharina

That afternoon, my mom and I spent time with several children. We taught some younger ones how to make pipe-cleaner and bead dolls and some of the older ones how to make boxes. The children were so fascinated that we spent almost two hours just doing crafts with them. During the children's dinner time, we walked to the nursery. One of the caretakers was dressing a tiny baby girl named Sharina. I asked if I could hold her and she placed the little one in my arms. She was precious, just several months old. I asked if one of the caretakers would wrap the baby onto my back like an African mother. A lady gathered towels and blankets and had me bend over and placed Sharina onto my back. She wrapped the blankets around the baby and then twisted and tied them several times across my chest so she was secure. Ever since I have been here, I have wanted to carry a baby on my back, and it was so fun! I could here her cooing behind me and her little feet would wiggle. I walked around with her strapped to me for a little as the sun sank below the hills. By the time I walked with her back to the nursery, she was fast asleep.

Notice the feet
Before bed time, the children came to a bonfire in a pit behind the guest house. They raved and chanted and danced around the blazing flames. Like my mom said, the scene could have been from a hundred years ago—tribal ceremonies around the fire. It was slightly chaotic with all the children and the loud chanting and screaming. 

Today has been mostly driving to the Virungas. Now, here I sit waiting for my chance to see the gorillas for the first time... 

She is fast asleep

The baby!!!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Umuhire Placide

A perfect day, one of the best of my life. I met my little boy yesterday, Umuhire Placide. My family has sponsored him since he was five years old! He is ten now, and such a handsome little guy. Placide is the fourth sponsored child that I have had the privilege of meeting, and without fail meeting my sponsored children have been highlights of my life.

We sponsor Umuhire (also called Placide) in Rwanda through an organization called Compassion International. Compassion is a child sponsorship program that is established in 26 countries and has over 1.2 million children all over the globe connected with sponsors. I have never come across a more trustworthy and remarkable organization. The difference that Compassion sponsorship makes in a child’s life is immense: from health and education to faith and happiness

The day began at 6:30 AM sharp as my parents and I prepared to make the journey out to Placide’s village. Eugene, a Compassion employee who works in Rwanda, met us at our hotel. We drove 3 hours into the south of Rwanda to Ntongwe where Placide lives. As we drove, we watched the countryside pass by. Women walking along the side of the street with baskets on their heads and babies tied on their baskets. Men riding bicycles hauling large loads up the steep hills. Children cavorting along in the mud. Rwanda is Africa’s most densely populated country, and I can see why. Rural Rwanda consists of plots of farmland interspersed between homes and little villages. People were everywhere.

Seeing Placide for the first time
As we finally reached Placide’s project, we were scanning the surroundings to see if he was around waiting for us. Just as I stepped out of the car, I turned around and saw a little boy emerging from the nearby building with some of the Compassion center staff. I knew it was Umuhire from pictures I had been sent of him… except he was so much more precious in real life. He knew who we were too, and ran up to me with the biggest smile and gave me a tight hug. Oh how I wanted to hold him forever! I can’t describe how joyful that moment was. It is like seeing a dear member of your family that you are reunited with after a long time. Umuhire was so much more aborable that in pictures we had of him… in the photos he wasn’t smiling and seemed so forlorn. It was wonderful to see his brilliant smile and dimples and see that he looked healthy. 

My boy
The pipe-cleaner and bead dolls we made
The compassion staff guided us to the office, and we sat with our boy. I sat down right next to Umuhire and could not keep my eyes off of him. My heart was overwhelmed with love for him! We talked some with our little boy and made some crafts with him and the Compassion staff. We made little pipe-cleaner and bead dolls and paper boxes. Placide caught on quick as he was able to do the crafts much more readily than other children we have done them with. It was obvious that he is a bright child! 

Next, we all piled in the car with our boy and drove the bumpy dirt paths to his home in the hills. We were surrounded by little mud huts and small farming plots of land with banana trees or sorghum plants (kind of like corn stalks). A young teenage boy ran up to us as we got out of the car with a gleaming smile and hugged each of us tightly. He must be Placide’s brother, Albert! We were directed up a hill on a small dirt path. A young woman dressed in bright blue came rushing down the hill and exuberantly hugged me while she laughed uncontrollably. Later, we learned this is Placide’s Aunt Grace! As we reached the end of the path at a little mud hut, we turned into a courtyeard area in between two homes and were greeted by a blur of women and children. Finally, a beautiful woman in red with the biggest smile I have ever seen came and hugged us, also laughing hysterically. Eugene told us this was Placide’s mother. She was stunning, and looked so young and happy. We were ushered into Placide’s home and sat inside the tiny mud hut talking to them. Deborah, Placide's mother, expressed to us how grateful she was for our sponsorship. It had changed her and her family's lives and it meant so much to her that we travelled all this way to see them. It was a blessing getting to know them more and spend time with these precious people. We learned that the goat we once had given Placide as a birthday gift had multiplied and was sold with its babies to purchase a cow! This is a great possession for them.
The baskets that the family gave us as gifts
Albert, Placide, Deborah, Grace

We gave the family gifts of rice, oil, biscuits, sugar, plates, bowls, cups, and other useful items around the house. We also gave our boy gifts of toys and games like frisbees, balls, toy cars, Legos, bubbles, markers, etc. When I pulled out a colorado jersey and hat for him, he immediately went into the other room and put them on for us. It was so much fun playing with him and his brother. Village children crowded in the doorway, staring in. It was obvious how much Compassion impacted Placide and his family when compared to these kids. They were starving with bloated bellies and snot all over their faces and torn and threadbare clothing. Umuhire and his brother were smiling and clean and well put together. It was a comfort to see our boy in his home with such a supportive family and looking so healthy.
The cow!

All too soon, Eugene told us it was time to go. We prayed for health and prosperity and life and love. It was a beautiful day. I wish it could have lasted for eternity. We walked down the hill back to the car. Grace put her arm around me and told me she was so glad to meet me. Then Umuhire came up and put his arm around me and I walked with him. What a sweet family. I will carry these moments with me forever. We hugged Deborah, Grace, Placide, and Albert goodbye at the bottom of the hill near the car. Everyone was still smiling and laughing. I am glad to know Placide lives in a house full of laughter. I never wanted to leave. I already miss that boy and his family so much already. A truly perfect day!

Daddy, Grace, Deborah, Albert, Placide, Grace, Mom

Albert and Umuhire: Brothers

Me and Grace

Giving gifts and playing games

Placide in his new shirt and hat! Go Buffs!

The other village children

My boy


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Day 1

Rwanda! I'm finally here! My parents and I arrived last night just as the bright red Rwandan sun sank below the hills of the capital Kigali. We were greeted by members of the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) CU Boulder team and immediately taken to a barbeque hosted by the directors of a Rwandan orphanage. There we met the entire EWB student team: a wonderful group of six CU students working on implementing engineering projects at two orphanages in the country. Despite the 33 long hours of travel, I could not have been more energetic. The excitement of finally arriving in this beautiful country was overwhelming! I have waited so long for this. After a quick meal, several of the EWB students convinced me to ride with them on motorcycles through the city to a Rwandan bar to watch the football (soccer) game. What an exhilarating experience: to feel the wind rushing through your hair and to let the thick African air fill your lungs. Although the city was blanketed in darkness, everything was in motion. There were people on foot lining the streets and cars, buses, and motorcycles zooming down the narrow lanes. And it was so clean! Everything is clean here... the streets were well-swept and garbage was scare (although, the open gutters contribute to a ripe smell I must add...). I felt strangely safe, too in this place. At the bar, the jet-lag finally began to kick-in. We walked back to our hotel and I slept like a rock.
Our Hotel: Chez Lando

Today, through the pouring rain, we ventured into the city of Kigali and went to an orphanage for street boys called the Rwandan Orphans Project. To get there, we took a Rwandan "bus." I wouldn't call it a's more like a run-down 15-passenger van that they cram 35 people into at once. Everyone was sitting on top of each other and in the isles. I must say, it was cause for laughter.

the cramped bus

The bus "station"

The orphanage buildings
chiAt the orphanage, The EWB team is attempting to build a new facility for the 90 boys who live there. The directors of the orphanage (Sean and Jenny) showed us around the dormitories, classrooms, dining hall, and kitchen of the orphanage. The boys both live and attend school here. Not all of the children are orphaned - some are, but all are former street children. The reasons for this range from the death of one or both parents from war or disease; one or both parents being in prison from the genocide (even though the genocide was 18 years ago, the repercussions are still resonating); the remarriage of one parent and the new step-parent refusing to care for a child from a previous marriage (this is unfortunately extremely common); or often simply just poverty - the parents can't afford to pay for food or school fees so the child gradually spends more and more time on the streets begging until they eventually lose touch completely with their parents. When the child does have a parent or other family member, the orphanage managers work hard to try to find them and rebuild the relationships with the children. Unfortunately, I learned that the president of Rwanda (known to many as a benevolent dictator) recently passed an edict that instructed the elimination of all orphanages in Rwanda as soon as possible. I do not know what will happen to these boys when the  orphanage is forced to shut down by the government.
The hillside slums

I have been to several child centers on previous trips to Africa. However, this was a very different place. These boys (ranging in age from 6-19) have obviously experienced trauma and pain far beyond what I can understand. The boys, although cordial and polite, were far reserved. They hardly spoke to us white people. I wish I could have been able to reach out to them more, to talk to them, to get to know them. We will be returning to this orphanage in two days, so I am hopeful.

After a brief meal at a small buffet restaurant just up the street from the orphanage, we caught another Rwandan "bus" to the more downtown area of Kigali. As we traveled, I watched the city pass by. Certainly it was clean, but the evidence of poverty in this place is nonetheless striking. The many hills that compose the city reveal rows of mud huts closely cramped together. At the bus "station" (more like a chaotic congregation of buses and vans all in one blob...), my parents and I split off from the EWB group to go find a handicraft market nearby. Well, we ended up walking for 3 hours through the streets and found no such market. At one point, we trekked up a dirt road and found a sign for a handicraft market. We followed the arrow on the sign down another street only to come to the end of the road and see another sign pointing us the way we had just come. The market must have been invisible, or closed. In the meantime, all the Rwandan people stared and pointed at us Mzungus (white people). The people aren't as friendly as the Tanzanians I met last summer. Maybe it is because of what this little country has been through. On the bright side, that long walk through the city did allow me to see Kigali up close!

Our next adventure was to find the place we were meeting the EWB team for dinner... We were going to Heaven! After asking probably 30 different people where the Restaurant Heaven is, we were about to give up hope that we would ever reach Heaven (no pun intended). A man in a shop lent us his phone and we called one of the team members for directions. After another 30 minutes of aimless wandering, we found it: a lovely little restaurant with an open-air terrace and friendly waiters. I enjoyed getting to know some of the CU students more at dinner.

For my first day in Rwanda, I am satisfied. It is a beautiful country with much to offer. I am excited to learn more! And tomorrow I will meet the little boy my family sponsors through Compassion International. This is already the trip of a lifetime.