Into Africa

Before moving to Chad, it had been 12 years since I set foot on the continent of Africa. My first trip was a whirlwind voyage to South Africa for the world cup followed by a volunteering trip to Rwanda. I have always had a fascination with the continent and saw myself as someone that would never make a career out of the military, but would instead join the Peace Corps, UN or an NGO.

Now, 12 years later, I am surrounded by those exact same people. People who thought working in the Democratic Republic of Congo with refugees would be fun. Or who have lived in the likes of Mosul, Iraq or the border between Chad and Libya because that was where the work was. These people are often paid nothing and hop around fascinating corners of the world doing work that is impossibly difficult and never ending.

While in Rwanda, I kept a journal that I have quite literally taken everywhere I go. For 12 years I have told myself that I will crack it open and share the contents. Now, having moved back to the continent after traveling other parts of the world, I am ready to open this pandora box and reflect on how much Rwanda as a country has grown, and how I have changed with it.

Posing with local school kids on a trip out to see the local schools

Rwanda’s government is notorious for being a ‘benevolent dictatorship’. The longtime ruler, Paul Kagame, has yet to release his grip on power but has maintained darling status in the international community. This is largely due to his effort to bring the country from its war-torn status following its 1994 genocide to a near middle income country. Lead by his vision 2020, this was done by draconian rules which are heavily enforced by militarized police and fines. One such example is his effort to take ethnicity out of daily conversation, creating a “Rwandan” identity; it is literally illegal to discuss another persons ethnicity. All businesses must have fruit trees planted in front of their offices; a measure intended to combat hunger. All children attending school need to have a shaved head as well as uniforms; girls manicured hair is, and still continues to be, an obvious distinguisher of wealth.

Every aspect of Rwandan society was completely torn after the genocide. Neighbors turned on neighbors, killing whole families and maiming people with indiscriminate violence. Orphanages were set-up, large portions of the educated population were slaughtered; to come back as a country from this level of violence is no small feat. One of the many things the government did following the genocide was set up tribunals, called the gacaca process. Meaning “peace, unity and reconciliation,” these tribunals were organized at the village level and allowed victims to confront, and hopefully forgive, or at least receive a sense of justice, from their perpetrators. The gacaca system focused less on putting members who committed crimes in jail and more on repentance and confrontation for their crimes.

At the top of Virunga mountain crater near Lake Kivu. Located on the border between Rwanda and the DRC

When I went to Rwanda it was 2010 and these measures were still very much an ongoing part of the healing process. There was no wifi, no consistent power (even in the capital, Kigali), and few paved roads. Every night the city went into blackout to preserve the power; construction was seen everywhere. People didn’t have electricity in their homes but charged their devices at every public institution. You may not have running water, but you have a cell phone – and that holds true for nearly every part of Africa. As my host family said “this country is the land of contradictions. We have cable and internet but not running water. Everyone has cell phones but can’t feed their families.”

Much of my writing at the time surrounded around being a single, white female traveling in a place that was essentially the opposite. Certain aspects stood out to me as categorically contradictive – such as the playing of American rap videos on public transport. This I wish I had a picture of: videos of practically naked, oversexualized women on a bus full of of people that barely showed skin at all. Black American culture was, and still is idealized. I was able to have the freedom that I do not have now – living and being attached to the American Embassy. Things such as riding on the back of local motos, getting packed into public transport and traveling to remote parts of the country on backpacker style excursion.

You know you have assimilated when:

  1. You respond to Muzungo, teacher or hissing as proper ways to address you
  2. You no longer cling to the back of a moto when it zips in and out of traffic (in the wrong direction)
  3. You refer to other white people as muzungos (a Bantu word meaning ‘wonderer’)
  4. You stop wondering if you are getting tanner and just accept the fact that there is an un-washable film of dirt on your feet

I volunteered with the Global Volunteer Network in their Gender Based Violence (GBV) program. I didn’t think I would change the world in two weeks, but I wanted to get an idea of the work that I thought I wanted to do. It never ceases to amaze me what women all around the world do to support each other. This group of ladies were no different. The program was set-up to help women establish small businesses to generate income and allow them to support their families after leaving their abusive spouses. Domestic violence is still very much an issue in many parts of Africa (and even somewhat socially acceptable). Without family or other assistance, women are often left with no options. It also where I learned about the concept of micro-loans. Small loans provided by private individuals to small, typically women or minority owned businesses. Loan recipients payback the loan in small increments as their business grows. It is an awesome system that provides sustainability while encouraging local economies and entrepreneurship where there may be limited opportunity.

Hanging with the local orphanage

I also shared some of my time with the local orphanage. Even as a self-described “non-kid person,” I will never forget the innocence and love with which the children interacted with me. In every town and every village, not just at the orphanage, children would follow me, try to hold my hand, fascinated with my skin and hair. They braided my hair, wrote me letters, fell asleep in my arms and piecemealed conversations in English. As much as I genuinely enjoyed these interacts, ‘volunteering’ at these institutions has since taken on a new light. Since 2010, UNICEF has conducted multiple studies that concluded that most children in these orphanages (and others around the world) are not actually orphans, but are dropped off by a surviving relative for the day. Guaranteed to have a meal and the possibility for sponsorship for school or adoption, these types of volunteer programs have drastically changed with informed research and time. With the advent of ‘poverty porn’, the use of images of impoverished children and families to guilt modern world into donations, the understanding of how the western world can help others in less developed places has evolved over time.

The more I dive into the continent, its history, its complex issues, the less I feel certain of any single fact. Africa has always represented the type of culture shock and adventure that I crave when traveling to far and distant places. As I dive deeper into understanding the complexities that is this diverse part of the world, I only find myself with more questions than answers. To understand more, I must go farther…into Africa.

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