Learning from the silence of elephants

by Tamara Enz

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Our lives are full of noise. Endless beeps, twitters, and rings. Traffic, jets, refrigerators, air conditioners. Ubiquitous cell phones, microwaves, TVs, and tablets. Each pinging, humming, and demanding attention. Gratuitous noise, the TV or radio turned on and then ignored, or worse, talked over loudly, has long been a pet peeve. Car keys left in the ignition, leaf blowers (^%*^%$#$ leaf blowers), car alarms (see leaf blowers), and every cell phone/ATM/POS card reader with keyboards that indicate, by sound, every letter entered.

Every. Letter. Entered.

For some, like me, it’s exhausting. Continue reading

Tartarus Falls Cover

Novel Journey 9: In which the author figures out his pricing so he can publish

Tartarus Falls Cover

Tartarus Falls

“Father, tell me a story?” asks Isaiah, moments before an alien craft smashes into the jungle near his isolated Nigerian village. Inside is the shattered body of a man.

With his orbital city hiding in the rubble of a devastating war, Samara falls 35,000km to escape from the space-based prison of Tartarus. Struggling to heal, and hunted by a brutal warlord in a ruthless land, Samara searches for a way home to the woman he loves.

And, in the darkness, waits the simmering fury at the heart of Tartarus.

I read a very good argument as to why we do need elite publishers and celebrity writers.

Publishers, like Hachette, serve to keep ebook prices high; $10 or more per book. Self-publishers aim low; 99c to $2.99 with another cluster at about $4.50. Continue reading

S&R Honors: Ivan Toms and Lawrie Schlemmer – what we were we still are

Waiting for a miracle

“How long are you prepared to wait?” I asked.

It was 1991 in the Eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth and I was in my final year of high school. Nelson Mandela had been released in 1990 with me hovering over the television, my camera on a tripod, in a futile and excited attempt to capture the moment.

Continue reading

Uganda Journal: the double tragedies of Kasensero

Memorial01The Rwanda Genocide Memorial in Kasensero sits high atop a limestone bluff that overlooks Lake Victoria, which shimmers gray-blue against the horizon a half-dozen kilometers away. In 1994, the bodies of more than 10,000 genocide victims washed up on Victoria’s shores after floating nearly a hundred kilometers downriver from the killing grounds in Rwanda.

The village of Kasensero itself remains hidden from view, as though villagers intentionally buried the bodies just beyond the crest of the hill, where it begins its downward slope, out of horror or fear or maybe even willful forgetting. Or, as one person has suggested to me, as a way to cut down on the smell.

FishingBoatsKasensaro is no stranger to tragedy, though. It was here where the AIDS virus first appeared in 1982. “Fishermen come in with their catch and get paid. They have a lot of money, and they want to show off for the women,” explains Herman, who has brought us to the village’s fishing center along lakeshore. All that hooking up and sleeping around—and then going home to their wives—meant residents of Kasensaro had an infection rate of ninety percent by the time health officials had any real grip on the situation.

“At first, people thought they were being bewitched, so they went to the witch doctors instead of the real doctors,” Herman says. “Ninety percent. Whole families, wiped out.”

And from there, the disease spread.

Today, seventy percent of the residents of Kasensaro are infected with HIV—compared to a national average of around six-point-five percent—although a look around the lakeshore would suggest nothing’s amiss aside from the weather. Most of the fishermen have grounded their boats for the day because of the severe chop on the water from the wind that has blown in a dark gray cloudbank.

KageraRiverA couple miles outside of town, past the fish factory, past the thatch-roof huts occupied by descendants of Rwandan refugees, the road terminates at the Kagera River. The current runs swift and mocha-colored, and clots of water hyacinths flow past. “This is the river that carried the bodies,” Herman tells us—just before he gets harangued by a police officer who’s lazing about on a motorbike. Ostensibly, the policeman is there to prevent smuggling, but just a few yards away, smugglers are happily packing a boat full of ice to take goods across the river to Tanzania.

That’s when I realize, Hey, I’m looking at Tanzania. It’s less than a hundred feet away and looks just like this side of the river, but it’s a different country, so I still think it’s cool.

Police in Uganda get paid poorly and infrequently, so it’s little wonder they look to make a few extra bucks on the side. What’s a little corruption. After twenty minutes, thirteen-thousand shillings—about five bucks—buys this officer’s silence, and he goes back to watching the smugglers who’ve also bought him off.

In the meantime, I’ve been talking with Elijah, the student from the Bethlehem School I’d worked with earlier in the week in Nakagomo. He’s on the trip because he comes from this area. His mother was Rwandan and had fled here to escape the genocide. Shortly thereafter, Elijah was born. Although his mother later died of AIDS, Elijah’s grandfather told him the history of his family and of the genocide.

The Hutu majority, in political power at the time, conducted an orchestrated campaign to slaughter members of the Tutsi minority. Animosity between the tribes, simmering for ages, erupted into Civil War in 1990, although it settled into a stalemate after three years. However, the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana of April 9, 1996, sparked renewed violence. In the course of 100 days, some 800,000 Tutsis were murdered, although some estimates place the number as high as a million—twenty percent of Rwanda’s population. Moderate Hutus who called for peace were also killed.

In the fifteen years since, the Rwandan government has aggressively worked to commemorate the genocide. Eight majors memorials, and more than 200 sites, exist in Rwanda, and three memorials exists in Uganda. Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World chronicles her work helping to build one such memorial in Rwanda. The memorials exist, says author Andrew Rice, “because remembrance serves the political interests of Rwanda’s present rulers, who came to power by defeating the genocide’s perpetrators in a civil war.” Rice’s book, The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget, recounts Uganda’s own history of internal violence under Idi Amin.

MassGraves&MarkerWhen Herman takes us up to the cemetery on the hilltop outside of town, we have to haggle with the caretaker for admittance. Ten thousand shillings buys our way in. “Come in,” the caretaker says. “You are very welcome. Be at home.”

In the cemetery, 2,827 victims of the genocide are buried in eight mass graves. One trench, perhaps sixty feet long, runs parallel to the front wall; three similar trenches run perpendicular to the first. Two other mass graves are located in the front corner of the cemetery, and two more are located in the opposite back corner. On an upper plateau beyond the caretaker’s house, there are yet two more. Workers used a backhoe to dig the pits, which are now entombed under concrete slabs inset with flagstone and adorned wide, light-orange stripes and diamonds. At the center of each, flower arrangements struggle to grow, but I’m not convinced the caretaker has been taking much care of the place.

ElijahMemorialSmall rocks are scattered over the tops of the slabs, too, and at first I wonder if the rocks have some symbolic significance. Then I see a trio of young children outside the caretaker’s house: one of them throws rocks at a chicken in a tree while another throws rocks down the hill.

While the memorial needs care, it’s still a contemplative space, and it’s easy to envision its potential for beauty. I see Elijah, who leans alone against the monument that sits in the front of the cemetery. “How does it feel to be here where your people are buried?” I ask.

I see him grope for words, but all he can do is shake his head. “It is something I cannot describe,” he says. As someone who spends a lot of time on Civil War battlefields and who has lived in a National Cemetery, I know what it’s like to be among the dead of your people and how powerful the experience can be.

I leave Elijah to his contemplations and follow the flagstone steps to the upper plateau. In the distance, Lake Victoria looks calm. The sun has come out.

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Uganda Journal: the safari (part two of two)

Hippo

photo by Justine Tutuska

The second of two parts

The first thing we see on our boatride along the shores of Lake Mburo is a pair of African fish eagles, which look like streamlined bald eagles but with the white extending from the head and neck down to the chest. Our park ranger, Moses, tries to fill us in on the hunting techniques and mate-for-life habits of the eagles, but we ignore him completely as soon as the first hippos begin to bob their heads out of the water. I happen to spot the first one and point, and everyone leans over to see. Shudders snap. I can practical hear Moses think, Well, so much for me….

The hippos tend to surface, exhale a spray of air very much like a whale, blink once or twice as they inhale, and then slide quietly back under water. “They look so hungry, hungry…” I say to no one in particular.

Crocodile01

We find hippos in a dozen clusters along the lakeshore, where they live in shallow areas and eat vegetation. If you combined a submarine with a tank and gave it a gaping maw, it would look like a hippo.

We also find a tiny Nile crocodile sunning itself on a tree branch, although he quickly plunks himself into the water when Moses slows the boat. We find another, about three feet long, sunning itself along a muddy bank near a shallow inlet. They grow as long as four meters, Moses tells us—that’s more than twelve feet of crocodile. That’d be a big damn reptile with a lot of teeth.

A little while later, we spook a couple sizeable crocs resting in a stand of papyrus when we round a bend. I can’t get an accurate sense of their length, though, because they both slide into the water, and stare at us with their cold reptile eyes, and disappear with hardly a wake.

Baboons

photo by Justine Tutuska

A family of baboons comes to the water’s edge as we’re nearly back to the dock. Perhaps twenty of them march by, including a mother with a tiny infant on her back. The troops dominant male finally pushes his way out of the brush closest to the river and scoops his charges up the bank and away like a cop telling onlookers, “Nothing to see here folks. Move along. Nothing to see.” Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing the scowl on the male’s face, but he sure doesn’t look happy to have us bothering his family, even if we are only taking pictures.

Zebra02We have the chance for some souvenir shopping, and Herman shows off the park’s bungalows, which would make for first-class camping. We also see plenty of other animals: waterbuck; topi, a type of antelope with front legs longer than its back legs, built for sustained speed; mongoose; and more bird varieties than I could ever wrap my head around. The place is a birder’s paradise.

We also see a pair of water buffalo, reportedly the most dangerous large animal in Africa because of their truck-like size and notoriously peevish temperaments. Each beast has a set of horns that begin from a central plate, or “boss,” on their forehead, and then like a full head of hair parted straight down the middle, the horns branch out like the curved ends of menacing handlebar moustaches.

Herman tells us the fall census tracked fifteen leopards and a bunch of hyenas in the park, too, as well as a single male lion. “And people camp here in tents?” I ask him.

Once upon a time, elephants used to roam the area, as did rhinos, although Uganda now only has seven and they’re all in captivity. The park does have plans to introduce giraffes later this month as a way to manage the brush.

The national government spends a lot of money on the national parks, Herman tells me later. The biggest problem is a lack of manpower, which would help address the other major problem, which has been poaching. The introduction of sport hunting in Lake Mburo National Park—the only park where it’s allowed—has helped alleviate the problem by providing much-needed income to local communities. A water buffalo might bring in as much as $1,000 U.S.; fifteen percent goes to the park, fifteen percent goes to the sportsmen’s association, which regulates the hunting; and seventy percent goes to the local landowner.

Similarly, when an animal from the park causes property damage for a local landowner, the national government reimburses the community with money that can be used for public works projects like new wells and community centers.

While no leopards show their spots, a monkey gives us a parting shot that could not be more perfect: it sits on the park sign and looks cutes as though posed there for promotional purposes. But Herman has shown me more than beautiful animals—through his own passion today and his work setting up Green Pearl, he has given me a glimpse of Uganda’s ecological future.

MonkeySign

photo by Justine Tutuska

Uganda Journal: the safari (part one of two)

ImpalaThe colonial King of Ankole, Omugabe, loved his impala. The capital of Uganda, Kampala, had been named for the graceful antelopes—but the growing population in the city began to squeeze the impala out of their habitat, and they were being hunted relentlessly. The king knew he had to protect the impala he so dearly loved. So, he gathered them together and moved them to the west, to an area now known as the Lake Mburo National Park, and there they still dwell today—the only place in Uganda where people can see them.

That’s the folk story as Herman tells it, anyway. The impala at Lake Mburo are plentiful, grazing in small herds of a dozen or so. They all have black stripes on the back creases of their hind legs and tail that spells out “M,” and the males have lyre-shaped horns that twist like thin tornados as they grow. They have eyes easy to get lost in; as near to the impalas as Herman is able to get us, we have the opportunity for a long, close look.

Herman has brought us to the park for a daylong safari to show off not only some of the most splendid animals on the continent but also to show off his skills as a guide. He’s starting up a new eco-tourism company, Green Pearl Tours—Uganda is the Pearl of Africa, and “green” denotes the eco-angle—and one of the reasons I’m in Uganda is to work with my colleague, Pauline, to provide business planning and marketing help to Herman for his start-up.

“We need to conserve the environment for future generations,” Herman says. “The country is very green. It shows there is life.”

That’s certainly true here at Lake Mburo. Life abounds. Outside the park, so much of the countryside is used for farming and cattle herding; those agricultural uses take up former animal habitat, and those cattle compete directly with zebras for grazing range. Here, the zebras roam as freely as the impala. “It’s the only place in Uganda you can see these animals, impala and zebra,” Herman says. It’s one of the things he likes most about the park—that and its good climate and its relative proximity to Kampala, some three and half hours away.

For those reasons, Herman chose to do his internship here while studying in a travel and tourism program while at university. The park, established in 1983, is one of ten in the country, most of which are clustered in the western part of Uganda.

Monkey02When we show up, the workers at the Sanga Gatehouse welcome Herman like an old friend. A maintenance crew, installing solar panels to provide power for the facility, has taken their lunch break and are feeding scraps of sandwiches to the vervet monkeys in the trees that line the path to the outhouse. The monkeys, gray-furred and black-faced, typically travel in family groups of twenty or so.

We have an appointment for a boat ride on the lake, but as we head in that direction, Herman patiently stops now and then so we can gawk at warthogs and bushbuck and crested cranes. You’d think a vanload of mazungku had never seen animals before.

“Let me tell you the story of the lake,” Herman tells us at one point. Two brothers, Kigarama and Mburo, once lived in the valley. Kigarama dreamed that the valley would flood and so urged his brother to move with him into the hills. Mburo ignored him. When the flood came, Mburo drowned. And so the lake is named for him and the hills are named for Kigarama.

WarthogNear the boat dock, a half a dozen warthogs graze on bended knees. “When they eat, it looks like they are crying,” Herman tells us. “There’s a hormone at works that causes their eyes water.” The warthogs have become so acclimated to humans that they pay us no heed. As we wait for the boat, the largest boar grazes within six feet of me before deciding to act spooked. He “whufs” and takes an angry jump in my direction as a warning. “Woa, big fella!” I tell him as I back off, looking at tusks that could easily disembowel me. “You’re the one who came into my space.” I don’t mind being the one who retreats, though.

Herman has cooked lunch for us: homemade samosa, which are like perogies filled with vegetables, and chipati, a kind of fried flatbread. He’s also made fresh passionfruit juice from a special recipe. When we’re done, he sends us out on the boat.

To be continued….

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Uganda Journal: The Bethlehem School

WelcomeOur van stops a few yards outside the gate, and our driver, Herman, tells us it’s okay to get out. In front of us, a hundred schoolchildren have gathered to greet us. They sing and jump and clap in rhythm. At the lead are two teenage girls with shaved heads and with lions’ manes tied to their waists. A twelve-year-old boy soon joins them. With their arms extended, they begin to shake their hips and bounce, and they back toward the gate. Our leader, Deb, says, “We are entering the school as honored guests.”

The Bethlehem Parents School and Orphanage sits just off the dirt road that runs east from Kyotera. During our time in Uganda, as we work on projects with several groups, this school will serve as our base of operations. Our heart will beat from here.

We walk through the gate, and the children begin to cheer and hug us. They range in age from seven to seventeen. The oldest boy, wearing a Guns-N-Roses t-shirt, rounds everyone together into a clockwise-moving circle, and the dancing continues. I clap and bob. “Jump!” a fifth-grade girl tells me. “Jump!” After the dance, she tells me her name is Cici.

Dancers01My colleagues and I follow the group into one of the school’s classrooms, a building made of mud bricks and covered with concrete. Inside, a space has been cleared at the front of the room, with a sound system set up along one wall and a row of drummers seated along another. A chalkboard on the far wall invites us, in colored chalk, to “feel at home our first beloved visitors.”

We’re seated at a table facing the performance area, and benches full of children sit behind us in neat if squirmy rows. A group of the middle-school-aged children sing a welcome song to us, and then the secondary-school students treat us to a series of traditional dances. The girls wear pink skirts and lion manes; the boys wear lime-green capris with rows of rattles tied to their right shins. Sashes of red, yellow, and black—the colors of Uganda—cross the boys chests.

DrummersTheir athleticism amazes me. This is youth and vigor and testosterone on full display, set to the fast-paced rhythm of the drums. A boy dances over the a girl and coaxes her to a space between their parallel lines, and he gets down on the floor and begins kicking his feet out in front of him while the girl decides if he’s acceptable or not. If so, she will turn her back to him and tickle the top of his head with her lion mane; if not, she dances behind him until he gives up and gets up, and they return to their respective lines.

We’re treated to a pair of lip-synching performances and a pair of speeches, and after much clapping and dancing, we break for dinner.

As guests, we eat with the school’s director, Fred Sserwangu—“Mr. Fred,” as everyone calls him—beneath a thatch-roofed cabana. Herman joins us, as does the school’s assistant director, “Young Fred” Mugisha (no relation to Mr. Fred), a man filled with more laughter than perhaps anyone I’ve ever met.

Deb and the Freds are old friends. Deb’s organization, With Both Hands, does community-level economic development projects in a dozen Third World countries. One of those projects has been the Bethlehem Parents School, which she’s been working with for six years. Everyone here calls her “Mama Deborah” because of the many forms of aid she’s funneled to the school—everything from new toothbrushes to an irrigation system for the school’s extensive garden. She’s helped build some of the school’s buildings and has provided the school with significant financial support.

Mr. Fred started the school on nothing more than a great idea and an entrepreneurial spirit. Today, nearly six hundred students attend the school—most from local communities, although some from far away board at the school. Many of the students are orphans, and for them, the school has become their permanent home. “A lot of them were street kids from Kampala that Young Fred rescued,” Deb explains. A number of the kids are HIV-positive.

BoysDormDespite the celebration, things today are actually quieter than usual. Most of the students have gone home for the two-month holiday that began in mid-December, so only about a hundred kids are around at the moment. Most of them are secondary school students who go away to boarding school during the school year but who have come here—home—for the break.

The kids cram into a pair of too-small dormitories, where bunk beds are stacked like a Boy Scout sleepaway camp. The girls have a little more room than the boys, but not much. In fact, dormitory space is one of the school’s keenest needs. Each dorm is little bigger than a typical American classroom, housing dozens of kids each. Rack ‘em and stack ‘em.

The classrooms are little more than unfinished dirt-floor cubicles with no overhead light and no glass in the windows or doors in the doorways. “Malaria kills” and “Malaria makes me miss my exams and classes” is stenciled on the outside walls.

ClassroomLast year, a new well finally eased conditions a bit. Students had been limited to a few cups of water per day because of insufficient well capacity—and before that, they had to lug water from a hole more than a mile away, then filter it and boil it—but the new well enables each student to have five gallons a day, although the pump generally flows pretty freely.

We tour the school’s banana groves and sweet potato fields and rows of maize, we make a stop at the chicken coop, and we meet some of the free-range rabbits. The Freds continue to move toward a sustainable agricultural operation that will meet the school’s needs, and they’ve made considerable progress, but food remains a significant issue.

NoRoseWithoutThornsYet the kids seem joyful, and everyone seems to bear the deprivations with resignation and hope—at least when they talk with us. The school’s motto, painted on a concrete block in the central courtyard, even suggests that struggle is a necessary part of life: “No rose without thorns.” The lesson itself is beautiful and difficult, and it sums up my impression of Uganda perfectly thus far.

But the kids remind me through their smiles and hugs and songs and dances that despite the thorns, the roses are plentiful—and all around me.

Uganda Journal: Into my Heart of Darkness

In the morning, I leave for Africa.

Specifically, I’m heading to Uganda for twelve days, for reasons that still remain vague to me beyond “I’m going to write about being in Africa.” That’s all the reason I really need, though: Africa has been a bucket-lister for me for as long as I can remember.

I’ve written about my fascination with the Dark Continent before (here, here, and here, for instance): Heart of Darkness, Stanley and Livingstone, the mokele-mbembe, the great white sharks off Cape Town, the lions of Tsavo, the gorillas in the mist, Tarzan of the Apes, Solomon Kane, the Zulu wars of the 19th century and the Congo wars of the 20th, Roland the Thompson Gunner, the last King of Scotland, the Rwandan genocide. (Sara Maurer’s recent series here at S&R has been wonderful, too.)

The stories, oh, the stories.

The trip is a present to myself for completing my doctorate. I thought, at first, that I’d go back to China. Then I considered Oxford. Then I heard that my boss, the dean of the School of Journalism, was going to Uganda. She’s been deeply involved for years with a project there sponsored by our student chapter of SIFE (Students In Free Enterprise), and she was planning a January trip related to that. I asked to tag along. “Sure,” she said.

Two other women whom I don’t know are also going on the trip. One of them is collecting data for her own Ph.D. project. Another has a grant to teach women how to make their own feminine napkins. I’ll be learning about the SIFE project, and I’ll also be doing some consulting for a fellow who’s planning to set up an eco-tourism company.

While I’ve wanted to go to Uganda for as long as we’ve had a SIFE program there, I never thought I’d actually get the chance to go. “Someday,” I mused. The trip took on renewed interest for me last year, though, because of the woman I was dating. She’d gone on a mission trip to Uganda with her church back in college, and the experience affected her deeply. I thought that by going to Uganda myself, I’d be able to better understand the profound impact of that experience. I wanted to get me some of that. I thought I’d be able to take her with me, too, but alas, back in September, life took us in different directions. And so I go to Uganda to better understand a woman I am no longer with—and as a way, too, to forget her.

Life has been exceptionally good to me over the past four months, I can’t deny, but the central narrative thread—the organizing principle—has had the unreal feel of a bad dream. I keep hoping I’ll wake up and it’ll all be over and I can start things afresh.

And suddenly here I stand, on the cusp of 2013, with that chance before me.

Africa is my chance to wake up.

Ironic, since Africa is a dream of its own with tributaries, like the Congo River, that wind from well back in my childhood. Yes, the Nile might be longer, but the Congo has always been, for me, more mysterious.

“You will either love Africa or you will hate it,” a friend told me, “but Africa does not allow indifference.”

I’ll see for myself soon enough. My goal is to soak up as much of Uganda as I can and then write about it. I’ll post as often as I can, although I’m told my internet access will be sporadic. One does not need wireless, apparently, to travel into the heart of darkness—or to escape the darkness that has troubled one’s heart.

Adventure awaits!

Carrying burdens

When Americans practice good posture, many of us try walking a straight line while balancing a book on our heads. The Rwandese can do better than that. They can balance an entire bucket full of stacked apples on their heads and walk miles up and down unpaved hills.

Historically, carrying on the head has also been referred to as “carrying burdens.” I find this term particularly ironic considering the daily physical and emotional burdens carried by so many in the developing world. Regardless, this way of transporting goods is a common part of everyday life in Rwanda. And, it was one of my favorite things to observe while traveling the country.

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I rafted the Nile

Last weekend, I went white water rafting on Uganda’s Nile River. Fear filled my bones for days leading up to the trip, along with most of the five-hour voyage down the mighty waterway. But, I refused to leave Africa without exploring this historically famous river. So, I did it. I rafted the Nile.

White water rapid intensity is measured by grade, from one to six. Grade six is usually considered unnavigable and unsafe to rafters. We took on the Nile at grade five. Experienced rafters like venturing this river for two main reasons: the water is deep, and it’s warm. This means rocks and frigid temperatures are less of a concern when flying out of the boat. It also leaves more time to traumatically count seconds while trapped underwater. Continue reading

Frank and Liliose

One of my hardest adjustments to living in Rwanda has been that of having hired help around the house. Well, let’s say it’s been my hardest and easiest adjustment.

In Rwanda culture, a standard for most homes includes having a house girl or house boy help with weekly chores, and also for a guard to patrol the property at night. So, a portion of my monthly rent in Kigali goes toward the salaries of one house girl and a guard named Frank.

Frank keeps our house safe at night. From Sunday through Saturday, he sits at his guard post between sundown to sunup regulating our gate and keeping watch over the property. Frank wears a blue uniform with tall black boots and a baseball cap that my roommates occasionally borrow while intoxicated on the weekends (we recently bought him an extra hat as a gift for his good spirits). Frank keeps the gate locked every Continue reading

A pause

It has officially been two months since I exited the plane at Kigali’s International Airport. Life since then has been what I imagine life to be like if staring inside a tornado from a grounded bathtub – calm at the base with a whirlwind of disorganized familiarities spinning chaotically above. The best part about sitting in the bathtub, though, has been the view of observing each bit of life swirling around me. And unlike the tornado, I’ve been able to choose which pieces to bring back down to Earth and which to send sailing with the wind.

This post is a pause…a time of closing my eyes to the swirling gusts to absorb the joys and learn from the hardships. I have not loved all moments here – whether spinning or still, but I have enjoyed most. And, when I pause I also consider: isn’t this what makes up every stage of life – the chaotic and calm, the loving and not loving of moments?

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Six days on Rwanda's roads

I recently spent six days traveling the Northwest corner of Rwanda. My brain has not yet processed the amazing, frustrating, enlightening adventures of the week. And, that makes writing about it difficult.

After my Internet-less efforts to write a blog post produced nothing but scribbled nonsense in a notepad, I decided to embrace the chaos. Truthfully, the need to process Rwanda has been an integral part of my life in Rwanda. So, I have summarized my trip in the best way my disheveled brain knows how: to describe the random, beautiful chaos of my week by stating the random simple events and emotions that filled my days.

In the past six days I…

Learned how to shoot a bow and arrow.  Walked through a thunderstorm (Rwanda has more lightning strikes than any country).  Road passenger while a friend drove a Jeep Liberty down the front steps of a hotel (the steps looked like a ramp).  Met a medicine man.  Bargained one night in a presidential suite for $13 more than the cheapest hotel room in town.   Continue reading

Words of my Rwanda life

Goats Everywhere
Banana trees Cover the hills
Motorcycles Most popular mode of transportation
Bare black baby butts Seen frequently around neighborhoods
Hills Not a single part of Rwanda without them
Carrying on the head The large items locals can balance continues to baffle me
Dirt roads Main roads paved, side roads not
AK-47 rifles All security and neighborhood guards carry them
Tropical fruit Mango, passion fruit, pineapple…yum Continue reading

Shaila meets the gorillas

I made my way toward town under a bright, star-filled sky. It was 4:30a.m. Locals still meandered their way home from the bars, but I had my hiking boots on in preparation for a new day. I was off to see the gorillas.

An estimated 800 Mountain Gorillas currently live in the hills around the Rwanda, Uganda and Congo borders. The Rwandan government allows visitors to see these rare creatures, but only after allocating a limited number of permits each day. While tourism helps boost the country’s economy, the national parks remain protective. Just 20 years ago, this species faced near extinction, with fewer than 300 reported members of its kind.

Rwanda recently raised its trekking prices to $750 for foreigners. Many would consider this a hefty sum, and this poor traveling grad school student was no exception. Continue reading

White girl in a black world

The locals call us mzungus. The word is a Swahili-adopted Kinyarwanda term for “foreigner,” or “white person,” and also the first Kinyarwanda word I learned. Few days pass when this the term does not linger in my presence.

I feel welcomed by the locals in Rwanda. But, I am different than most people here. I have long, light-brown hair. I am white.

I stroll the streets of Rwanda as vividly as an elephant stomping through Times Square.

Last week, I fell on my dirt road while walking home. My curious eyes had wandered away from my downhill steps to some pretty yellow flowers, and I lost balance. While slightly embarrassed, I considered my fall a graceful one. I propped myself back up and kept walking, just in time to catch the attention of one neighborhood boy. His eyes bulged out of his head and within seconds began alerting his friends of what happened. Continue reading

Just another day in K-town

I wake up on an average Sunday in Kigali and go for a journey through town. It is an ordinary day to most, but everything seems new and exciting to my two-week-old Rwanda eyes.

I exit my front gate and begin the bumpy hike up my dirt road to town. It’s a short, five-minute walk, but also a steep one. I pant the entire time.

On the way, I pass a church. The doors are open, and vibrant sounds of rejoice echo into the streets. The passionate singing, bright dancing dresses and unreserved clapping makes me smile through the exhausting climb.

Everyone stares as I pass. They do not threaten, nor am I scared. They just wonder about this white woman walking through their African neighborhood. Continue reading

I broke the toilet

Literally. I broke my toilet. I had been in Africa for two days and already started tearing things apart.

This shattering of the ceramic toilet-top perfectly symbolizes my adjustment process to the city of Kigali: The top hides shit beneath its surface, but when ill-treated winds up in pieces on the floor. This is also my life.

If someone asked me to sum up my first week in Kigali in three words, I could do so easily:

  1. Starving.
  2. Destitute.
  3. Helpless.

It wasn’t the city’s fault. It wasn’t mine either. This situation evolved from a sort of cyclical effect that whirled within the crossing-over process of my American culture into that of Rwanda’s. That cyclical effect went something like this: Continue reading

Adele, a driver and me

I opened my eyes and stared up at the tee-peed mosquito net that surrounded me. It was 7:30a.m., and I was in Africa.

My flight from Istanbul, Turkey landed fewer than eight hours earlier. Darkness filled the city of Kigali at that time, so I drew back the curtains of my room and peeked into the new day. A peaceful landscape of red roofs and rolling hills stared back at me. Good morning, Rwanda.

I had deplaned on the runway of a visibly sleeping city the night before and walked toward the building that read “Kigali International Airport.” No lights or lanes guided me. Few airport staff members even looked my way as I meandered alone toward the “ARRIVALS” door. Only a small number of passengers exited the already half-filled plane, as the aircraft still had another late-night stop to make in Kampala, Uganda.
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Rwanda: One month and counting

Two years ago, I decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in Social Work to advance my career path toward more service-based work. While eager to move into a field I felt more passionate about, I applied to graduate school with a lingering hope – that I could become part of Tulane University’s Global Social Work Certificate Program and spend my final semester completing an internship overseas.

Last November, Tulane’s staff members officially welcomed me into the GSW program and, two months ago, I received my abroad placement. I will spend the fall semester in Kigali, Rwanda helping in the development of a social services program at an organization called the Rwandan Orphans Project (ROP). The orphanage serves nearly 100 vulnerable boys from around Rwanda and provides housing, clothing, food and healthcare to these children. My role will aid in the development of a program that helps to better reintegrate these orphans with families.
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