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.

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