Latin in Rwanda: Our Voices

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Written by Michelle Santos, Alexis Lopez, Sumina Regmi, Michelle Perez, Alex Moreno, and Richard Mbouombouo This summer, Latin visited our friends in Rwanda for the 6th year in a row… We rest in our rented apartments overlooking the city lights. At around 9am Kigali time, 2am Chicago, we take a yellow van with our guide, Jean, to our first destination: the clinics run by We Act for Hope. Shops and city traffic cluster around the first clinic at the center of Kigali. The clinic, a long flight of stairs ahead, feels hidden and, soon, we learn there are two entrances. While we take the main entrance, many of the patients that visit the clinic take the second. The patient entrance masks itself as an ordinary store; it’s a service the clinic provides to HIV positive patients. Many struggle to accept their status and hide to avoid social exclusion. Cases of rape- and gender-based violence are a big problem in Kigali, and We Act provides trauma counselors, support groups, and nutrition, in addition to free medication and doctor visits. Within the small clinic, data on 2500 patients is filed in green folders. Three out of four patients are women. While the clinic tries its best to provide every patient with personal, thoughtful, individual attention, there are only four doctors for the 2500 patients. Clinic two is farther away. Through farmland and dirt roads, the car winds its way to the top of a hill where the clinic stands. While the first clinic is for HIV patients in Kigali, the second is part of a general purpose clinic that services a larger variety of patients, from pregnant mothers to those needing minor surgeries. The lack of doctors and staff for such a large number of people is surprising, but we find the lack of supplies and conditions of the rooms more unbelievable. Each room has multiple purposes, and we could see that resourcefulness may be the doctors’ greatest asset. Necessary resourcefulness.


We have to adjust fast. After purchasing handcrafted bracelets and woven baskets, beaded necklaces and small purses, we are told today would be our hardest day. We visit a genocide memorial at Nyamata Church. Stepping on the broken, stone entrance and looking into a room of benches and piles of old clothing, the clothing of those who died, our guide tells us that the entrance is broken because the militia threw a grenade to break the metal doors. The Tutsi people of Rwanda had sought refuge here in this church where the Virgin Mary is kept at the front. The Hutu militia forced their way into the church to kill the Tutsi with machetes, guns, knives, and even the cross on the wall. Bullet holes and blood still cover the roof. As we walk with our guide, she takes us to an underground tomb. Skulls and bones line the shelves on either side of us. The smell and sight are meant to provide education, but they are also meant for people who do not believe the Rwandan Genocide happened. This is proof. As a group we reflect: “I had never seen dead bodies before; I’ve never even been to a funeral. I felt nauseous.” “What really got to me was seeing the baby clothes.” “They shot the Virgin Mary. They didn’t care about the sanctity of the church. They had no respect when they went in. They just wanted to kill the Tutsi.” “I recognized names. When I saw my own name. It made me feel more connected to the story. I could picture myself there.” “The hardest part was when I had to go inside the tomb. We were surrounded by bones on both sides. I felt so suffocated. I wanted to get out, but there were people blocking the exit and I couldn’t.” “Seeing the different types of skulls. Seeing how the Rwandan People are trying so hard to preserve them to prove that the genocide happened. I felt really uncomfortable because the dead were still not at rest. I am not a religious person, but I prayed in the car.”
We entered the camp with the sound of laughter and songs filling our heads. After we unloaded the camp resources— balls, water, art supplies—the Latin students and I decided to join the circle of children and peer parents outside. As soon as I became part of the circle, I felt an instant connection to not only the kids but also the culture. Heart-warming faces looked our way as we sang along to their songs. By the end of the “Sako” time, (when everyone gathers to form a big circle) I knew almost all the words to the Kinyarwanda songs. It was one of the happiest moments from my time in Rwanda. The day went by quicker than I had expected. We formed three groups and worked on different activities for a couple of hours. After we served them food, it was time to play on the fields. Because my early childhood was spent growing up in the rural areas of Nepal, I felt a deep attraction to the culture and tradition. I realized how similar my culture was to the Rwandan culture. I stepped onto the dirt soccer field to play a game called “Fire on the Mountain.” I didn’t know I still remembered how to play until we started the game. It made me feel like I was always a part of this community and culture. After, all the kids played soccer, volleyball, basketball, and Frisbee. One day turned into two and two into three. In no time at all, I realized that it was the last day of summer camp. I couldn’t believe the love and care I felt when the kids started talking to me as a friend, someone to look up to, and someone to be grateful for. The peer parents are not only impacting the lives of the kids in the summer programs, but also ours. I felt a real connection with the adults. I felt loved, cared for, and most of all, a part of something small that could make a big difference in someone’s life. The last day was very sad for me. I didn’t want to leave them. This experience has been so surreal and eye opening. I really hope I get another chance to do this again. I want to continue what we started.   Setting up a mosquito net might be the most tedious and least rewarding nightly ritual. No matter how much tucking in or wrapping around you do, you will always be greeted by the itching feeling of failure the next morning. Our bus ride over to St. Famille Church was full of swerving moto-taxis, awkward stares followed by welcoming waves, and holding on for dear life as the dirt-paved road shifted us left and right. Our amazing Rwandan driver, Jean de Dieu, always seems to get us where we need to be despite our bright-yellow school bus’s lack of acceleration, and the blatant disregard for traffic rules on the busy streets of Kigali. We could hear the chanting of the kids before arriving at the church. With hands held, they huddled in a circle, singing and dancing. We joined in the Kinyarwanda shouts, attempting, with no luck, to emulate the movements of the kids and joining together to trap the tiger. After getting our “Summer ‘Youty’ Program” shirts, we found ourselves in an even bigger circle, shouting even louder chants, and embarrassing ourselves in front of a much larger crowd. In little to no time, the kids began tugging at our hair and pulling us side to side. For me, the highlight of the day came in the afternoon. We had just gotten through a breathtaking lunch; not only was the food a new, tangy experience but seeing the kids stack their plates with mounds of food weighing more than them shocked us all. As our stomachs began reaching their capacities, we all shared a look of dismay as we realized we’d only eaten a third of our plates. Since none of us wanted to be the ‘mzungu’ that wasted their food on the first day, the following minutes were full of bloated looks and stuffed faces. Before joining the kids for recess, Mama Ingrid gave us one of her “briefs” which answered the lingering question of how these kids could eat so much. For many of them, the meal at camp was their only food for the day, which left me wondering what these kids do when that week-long camp is over, and they’re forced to go back to their regular lives. My downed spirit was greatly alleviated by the energy and enthusiasm of the kids. A few of us played a sort of “monkey in the middle” Frisbee game, and, although most of them had never thrown a Frisbee in their lives, they managed to pick up what had taken me years to learn. James and I played the flashiest game of Frisbee; with elaborate, no-look passes and deceiving head fakes, we managed to weave the Frisbee between a high of four monkeys, never winding up in the middle. Soon, we all headed to the infamous, red-dirt soccer field, with netless, makeshift goals, and rocks that, despite their jagged nature, still ended up being less of an obstacle than choking on the clouds of red dust. After my first goal, I felt as though I had scored the winning point in the final seconds of the World Cup; instantly, kids who weren’t even on my team, huddled around me, shouting my name and hugging me. Without even mentioning the hat trick, I’m sure everyone could tell the feat I had attained just by the red handprints covering my pants and shirt and the battered look of my shoes. What would usually drive me into a panic, realizing how much hand washing I’d have to do to get the red stains out of my everything, didn’t even phase me, and it was then that I began realizing the impact the camp had on the children; for a week these amazing kids would get the chance to put their disease aside and just be kids, an opportunity that I take for granted.
Making a world of difference. Five simple words strung together to make a motto for a small parochial school on the lower west side of Chicago. I never really understood what they meant: “To go forth and change the world.”  Yes, I understood the literal meaning, but that does not mean I knew how to do it. This past summer, I worked with kids from an enrichment program for 7th and 8th graders coming from low-income families. In those weeks, I thought I was just helping kids understand bigger issues than themselves, but then I left for Rwanda. Before my departure, my students confessed that I helped them succeed this summer and that they didn’t want me to leave. I didn’t want to leave either, but I knew I’d see my students again so there was no reason to miss them too much. Then I came to Rwanda. I watched the movies, read the articles, and researched what I was going into: a summer camp run by a clinic that was founded after a genocide that killed almost a million people and produced an entire generation of HIV positive women and children. Not easy things to deal with, but I thought two weeks of summer camp with kids a bit younger than me would be a piece of cake after my summer working with 7th and 8th graders. Camp went along smoothly, lots of games, lots of hugs, and team bonding. Then I noticed some things that weren’t exactly the same as the summer program in Chicago. First, the kids would come in with cuts on their feet from wearing shoes too small. It was all they could wear because it was their only pair of shoes. I’d wrap up their blisters, and they’d continue playing. Then there was lunchtime. These Rwandese kids would stack their plates high with food that, to me at least, would take me three separate meals to eat, but they would eat it in one. I later found out that this lunch was almost always their only meal of the day. Every day at the end of camp, the kids were given about one dollar to get home. It was sort of like giving the kids a bus card. It seemed very normal and ordinary until we went on a field trip that was a three-hour drive from camp. The school buses were packed full, and, about an hour into the drive, the buses came to a halt. Three students boarded the bus and the drive continued. At this moment, I realized this dollar we gave them had to get them an hour outside of camp every day. Making a world of difference isn’t something you do consciously; it’s something you do out of common actions. For me, giving the kids hugs and serving them lunch was something small, but, for them, it was changing their lives. As I said earlier, I knew I’d see my Chicago students again, but I couldn’t say the same about my Rwandese students. In their culture, crying is abnormal and seldom public. However, as we said our goodbyes, almost everyone cried. That was probably one of the hardest things I have done in my life—saying goodbye, or Murabeho, as they say.  
When I signed up for this trip to Rwanda, I had no idea what we were doing there. I recalled my other trips to India, to Nicaragua. Working with children who do not have the same opportunities as me has been a passion of mine. Though I am shy and quiet, I want to give them the same camp experience that I was able to have growing up, where my counselors became my friends, my crushes, my parents. My camp counselors would make me sing and laugh. And most people who play and teach fun activities to impoverished kids believe that they aren’t making that big of a difference. I know I didn’t. I wasn’t going to go back. I wasn’t going to educate them or teach them a craft. But this time, in Rwanda, this was different. The air was different. The camp was organized by We Act for Hope in Kigali, Rwanda. Claude: His name was Claude, and he was skinnier than me and tall—lanky. The first time I saw him, he led a song in Kinyarwanda for 45 children holding hands in a circle. He would sing, then they would, then he, then they. The five of us Americans stood next to each other swaying back and forth to the catchy, but unimaginably difficult to understand, music. His mouth carried an impossibly large smile. I swear I felt intimidated by his excitement. I was afraid he was going to make me dance in the middle of the circle like some other kids were doing. Sure enough, he grabbed my hands and pulled me in, and I did a very incorrect form of traditional Rwandan dance in front of these 45 smiling love bugs. Soon, I didn’t mind. I’m the kind of person who shies away from singing in front of my dad, yet this I didn’t mind. Claude. He makes me smile just by looking at me. He takes my phone and captures hundreds of pictures with it so that my battery dies in two hours, and I run out of space for photos in two days even though my phone is brand new. Still, I’m grateful because now I have so many candid photos of him, myself, and my other friends. My brothers and sisters. We are playing together, and a camper comes up to me and says, “Michelle, can I ask you a question?” “Sure, of course!” She leans in and whispers, “Are you positive?” “What do you mean?” “Are you positive?” I squint and then understand. “Oh – no, no I’m not.” “Ohhh, ok. I’m sorry.” She retreats. “I’m sorry.” “No, it’s ok. You can ask me anything. Really. It’s ok.” Amidst the smiles and laughs I forget, we forget our real lives. Their real lives. At dinner time, we eat with the older counselors. Their ages range from 19 to 27. Though Claude is 22, he is not there at this dinner. Our first dinner. Like typical high schoolers, we sit segregated, Rwandans on the right of the long, square table and Americans on the left. Ms. Dorer, Mama Ingrid, our teacher and supervisor, mixes us up so that we can get to know the people she has invited for dinner this evening. We have questions. “So, what are you studying in school? You said you studied in Chicago at Truman college for a year, right?” “Yes. I want to be a chemical engineer. I study science.” “What are your greatest fears?” “That I will be alone.” “if you were to pick one person dead or alive that you can have dinner with, who would it be?” “My mother.” “My father.” “My girlfriend.” There are many reasons why these people shouldn’t trust us. Mama Ingrid, who has been coming here for six years, has built some trust though, and she gives us insight into the personal stories of some of our new friends. Pretty: She was so pretty, and her name felt obvious. Pretty is a 19-year-old girl who can’t speak. Her hands look disabled, and she shakes a bit, though her smile is relaxed and well defined. Mama Ingrid has known her for six years. Three years ago she could speak. She was the most promising of all the campers. At 15 she was going to be a counselor because she was mature, responsible, intelligent, and her English was the best out of everyone there. At 16, she went to a boarding school to improve her education. At 16, she had an HIV related stroke. She stopped taking her medication at boarding school. She didn’t want to be an outcast.  While the doctors reassured her that she would be able to walk again, and she did, they also said that she would be able to talk again, but she didn’t. She hasn’t. So now she walks around smiling and greeting people with her eyes. People hold her wrists in the large circle of children and sing while she listens. When everyone eats, I am not sure where she goes. Pretty isn’t given the option to share her story with us even if she wanted to. It’s a bond we just feel with her. We know she trusts us. Blaise: He looks like he is 7 years old, but we know better because the youngest kids at the camp are 12. Mama Ingrid finds out his story a few days into the trip. A story she never knew even though she has known Blaise for three years. This malnourished, feeble child is 15— older than one of our American students. His bones pinch his skin, and he piles his plate like a tower at lunch time. Then again, so do all the other children. They ask me why I barely put anything on my plate, yet I can barely finish what I have because I feel so full. Blaise. He has no home. Born of a prostitute who disappeared three months ago, he wanders from house to house. Houses that WE Act convinces to host him for a while. Just for a while. He sleeps on the dirt floor in mud-brick houses, paying rent by offering his manual labor. Sometimes they feed him. Maybe, sometimes he can go to school? This boy raps about Mama Ingrid like Eminem. He sings for us louder than anyone. He knows each of our names, and we don’t even know his name yet. He asks me to make him a bracelet with his name on it because he knows I’ve made some for the other kids, and despite all that has happened to him and what little he has, all he wants is his fucking name written in colorful strings on his wrist. His name means Thanks. Claude: He plays with my hair on the long bus ride. I turn around and pinch his cheeks. He says, “Sister. Tell me about your mother.” “I don’t have a mother. She left when I was little.” “Oh, I’m sorry.” “No, it’s ok. I’m used to it.” “When I was three my father died. When I was seven my mother died. Now I live alone.” Claude shares this with me. He tells me his story. He makes himself vulnerable. At the goodbye ceremony, Claude stands up in front of 30 or more people. There are no tears yet. My friends, my classmates, my teacher are all there. I remember I am standing in a line of people just after a group picture was taken. “This group has been very special to me this year. But there is one person I would like to thank the most.” He is holding a beautiful, Rwandan made wood carving of a giraffe in his two hands. “My sister. She says she did not get to see a giraffe in Rwanda, so I bought her a giraffe.” I hug him, and I won’t let go. He trusts me. He is not the only one who chooses to trust me. I am not sure why it is me he chooses to trust. Maybe the other students are too young. Maybe I have a trusting face. Maybe Claude and I have more in common than we thought. I don’t know. What I do know is that he isn’t the only one that trusts me. The others do, too. For the first time in my life, I have a family. Being back in Chicago is hard for me. I see Lake Michigan from my bedroom while the hot air busts through the windows. I see the beach. I see the straight streets and flat sidewalks, the pool, the tennis court. I see my fridge full of corned beef, eggs, and spoiled milk. I hate all of it. This was never my home. I feel alone. I think of Claude and the other friends that I have. They live alone, too. They live in one-room homes, electricity might or might now flow through their wires if they have wires, and they walk to wells probably every morning and night and afternoon. They study to be accountants, and their biggest dreams are to be flight attendants even though they are class president at their school. At camp, they are the happiest, most inspirational people I have ever met. Then they go home, to their hell, and all I can think of is spoiled milk.]]>