Sarah – Food for Thought

“Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the west.” – Binyavanga Wainaina “How to Write About Africa”

I stare at my plate. The usual rice, kidney beans, fries, and peas that I have everyday, well that I have had everyday since coming to Rwanda. During my time here, everything has revolved around food.

I wake up and eat breakfast of potatoes, eggs, beans and toast. I walk into town, passing fields of banana trees and maize. I eat lunch at a restaurant where the locals build mountains of food on their plates, dowsing it in chili oil that numbs your lips. None of the food goes to waste.

Some days I help build kitchen gardens with the locals to help those in the community that struggle with malnutrition. By providing physical labor and a bit of PR (Hey look at the muzungu carrying a brick on her head) more people in the community will have access to fresh vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes, and carrots. Or should I say amashu, ibirayi, and caroti as I have learned by playing with flash cards with the local children.

It has been said that some of the best conversations occur in the pub, but I would argue that they occur at the table. Food provides the environment for meaningful conversations. Even the slightest change from the usual fare such as cabbage, chapatti, or the odd piece of meat results in more excitement than the Nintendo 64 kid on Christmas.

Of course this is all coming from my perspective. One of a muzungu, an outsider who will never fit in. Yes, there is malnutrition here, I am not totally blind, but by no means have the people I have met here waited for my benevolence.

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Gwen – Single Mama Drama

In Bruce Chatwin’s Anatomy of Restlessness, he wrote about the findings of encephalograph readings of American travelers, “they found that changes of scenery and awareness of the passage of seasons through the year stimulated the rhythms of the brain, contributing to a sense of well being and an active purpose in life.”

I know that in my last blog post, I wrote about how we will never fully experience the life of someone in Gashora. I still believe that to be true. However, the realization does not discourage my desire for traveling that involves immersion into a society.

I met this woman named Marie Jean on our first full day in Gashora. The first kitchen garden we built was for her family. Her husband is in the military so she is the primary parent to her four children. Despite being the only caretaker to her children, she showed up to every kitchen garden project and worked for hours. We developed this bond through gestures, as neither of us knew each other’s native language. When it came time to interview someone, I knew it was her that I wanted to know more about. While sitting in a room that only had three small wooden couches and a tiny coffee table in Marie Jean’s house, I learned about her life as a single mom with the help of a translator. What struck me were the similarities between the life of a single mom in Gashora and the life of my single mom back home. The selfless nature of centering your life around the needs, wants and desires of your children. Marie Jean makes sure there is food for her children, my mom makes sure that my brother and I can attend college. They give what they can.

While you can’t fully know what it is like to live in Gashora, Rwanda, you can witness similarities and truths that do not just pertain to where you are from. The plight of the single mother is not unique to a village, city or country.

This experience has enforced my desire to do social justice work. Maybe one day to work with low-income single mothers. As Chatwin found, traveling helps for an active purpose in life. Without a doubt, I found that to be true.

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Lee – L’Esperance

Yesterday we left Gashora and spent the night in Kigali. Today we are waiting for the bus that will take us to Kibuye, then on to this orphanage nestled high in the hills. We will have no Internet access till we return to Kigali, but in the meantime here is the website for the magical place we will be staying: http://lesperancerwanda.org/

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Allison – Transplanting Ourselves

“I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story…in one place you could write about it better than in another. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought…” – Ernest Hemingway, “A Good Café on the Café St.-Michel”

I find the quote from Hemingway’s short piece set in Paris very relevant to this trip, especially at this point in our program. We are just now eating our last breakfast here in Gashora, spending our last moments on the peaceful, picturesque grounds of La Palisse. We will take our last jolty bus ride down the road we’ve walked at least twice a day for the past month and head out for a next adventure. We have all done a lot of writing these last few weeks, writing about images and settings and characters that have been a part of this experience, and we have undergone the writing process in a variety of places: a pagoda by Lake Rumera at sunset; a bus on the way home from a genocide memorial center in Nyamata; at a plastic table in the Lakeside Restaurant, beside doors open to Gashora’s center.

It’s one thing to write about a place while you are there, receiving information and inspiration from primary sources (the five senses), but, of course, it is a completely different process to write about place via transplantation, such as Hemingway describes. During our stay here, one of our exercises for class involved listing imagery that stood out in our minds; my list includes such sensory experiences as “the smoky smell of Kigali after coming off the plane,” “the taste of tomato fruit”, “the color of the lavender sky at dawn”, and “the feeling/taste of dirt in my teeth from building the garden.” I have been able to go through my journals and see descriptions of these experiences that were recorded as they were happening.

As I’m sure is the case for all of us, writing about this experience won’t stop once I’m home, and I am very curious to see how my writing will change as I write from thousands of miles away. Will it be easier to pick topics and experiences to focus on, with the significant ones being most fresh in my memory? How much potential material will be lost with the spatial and temporal distance? How will my voice and perspective change once I have had time to explain this trip in words to my friends and family? Might it be easier to write about Rwanda once I’m not here, as Hemingway would suggest?

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Taryn – What a Character

Before coming on this trip, many people asked me if I was going with a friend, someone I already knew. And I said no, but building relationships with people is a part of this experience in Gashora and within our team. I remember our first team meeting, feeling excited and curious to know who these people are, and why they decided to come on this trip. This same feeling occurred as I stepped foot in Rwanda. I was anxious to meet people, understand this country even better than the prior research I’ve done, but most importantly to listen, interact and engage with people to comprehend what experiences they’ve had to become the person they are today.

Janet Burroway says in her book Elements of Craft Writing, “one of the ways we understand people is by assessing, partly instinctively and partly through experience, what they express voluntarily and involuntarily.” I have done this with Abraham, one of my interviewees for a class assignment, who is a man that owns a restaurant in the city center of Gashora. We have slowly but surely gotten to know this man and his family more and more as we ate at his restaurant everyday for lunch. For about a week, it took time to learn each other’s names and feel comfortable with one another. I observed this man through his actions of service and with the other customers and his co-workers/family members. There was no doubt in my mind that this man is incredible. His smile is infectious, he does anything he can to please his customers, and makes each visit special and personable. During the second week, we attended Abraham’s family’s church. Their appreciation for us coming and experiencing it together deepened our friendship. We got to talk and ask each other questions during our walk to and from church service, and I could tell that this man has had a lot of changes in his life but takes each one with joy. Off the bat when I got the interview assignment, I knew I wanted to talk to Abraham.

He has so much insight and is open to anything you ask him. In fact, he was so open that I only had to ask 3 of my 13 questions that I had prepared. I had many questions about his restaurant, but he went ahead and told me his entire work history that led up to owning Lakeside Restaurant. With knowledge of the people that work at the restaurant being his family, I asked if he wants his sons to take over the restaurant when they become old enough to. He immediately said no, which I found to be surprising because many family restaurants in America would be passed down to sons or daughters for generations upon generations. Abraham expressed the importance of finishing school and getting a good education because he didn’t finish school himself for many reasons. I was happy to hear that and to see how passionate he was about understanding the importance of having a good education while Americans typically take it for granted, with the easier ability to pay for it. I recall him saying, “as long as they (his boys) finish school, they can do anything they want. I want them to follow their dreams.” I told Abraham how remarkable of a father he is for allowing that freedom for his sons explaining that in America, many people have pressure to become the person their parents want them to be and don’t pursue their own dreams. He found that to be crazy!

Although our interview was cut short (I could have easily talked with him for 4 hours), I have made a great friend. He is noble, insightful, and great role model for his family. His heart is full of love for the relationships he makes with his customers, and he is much more than my initial reaction, a man with a smile on his face.

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Mary – Strangers

“There are only two stories: someone went on a journey and a stranger came to town.” John Gardner, as quoted by Janet Burroway in Elements of Craft Writing.

It is our last day in Gashora, and both our journey and our strangeness here is coming to an end. Walking through town, we stop often to greet familiar faces, from Covaga, the health center, the local pub. We’ve nestled in and taken the time to build genuine relationships and I believe this has allowed us to empathize with the people in Gashora.

We had our last day of English lessons at the health center on Wednesday, and to say goodbye and thank you we sang I’ll Fly Away. In a few days we will do just that, returning home with stories featuring our friends in Gashora. Our challenge now is not to portray our friends as merely characters in our African adventure. The Travel Writing course has trained us to avoid stereotypes and writing what the audience expects of us. But what has been even more influential is that we now know a lot about the people we’ve met. Together we’ve broken bread and visited homes and shared our dreams. We’ve seen the good and the bad, and we’ve loved and been loved.

Our partners in Gashora are not characters that have adorned the stories of our journey. They are our friends. I could talk about Dancilla, our mother figure who taught us to survive in the world of fabric shopping, or Patrick who works at the hotel and always wears light pink converse and a 10-inch grin. But this perfunctory description portrays both individuals more as curios decorating the tales of our escapades than real people, a sin made especially grievous by the familiarity we’ve established. We’ve moved beyond that, both as travelers and writers. Dancilla built Covaga from the ground up and has positively impacted and empowered the lives of 60 women in the community. Patrick and his brother and sister cared for each other after their parents died and went on to study hospitality at university.

I find it difficult to create engaging stories about relationships that developed subtly over the span of a few weeks. “I pet a monkey!” or “I danced to drums at church!” are instantly stories that are both vivid, exotic, and in line with what I think audiences expect out of my adventure. But these had nothing to do with what shaped the core of our time in Gashora, the interaction with our partners and friends. So as I say goodbye to one journey, shed of the strangerdom I arrived with, I embark on another, to tell truthfully of the people who helped shape my perspectives of my time in Rwanda.

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Grant – Musings of a Male

Grant – Musings of a Male

“A man never goes so far as when he doesn’t know where he is going” – Oliver Cromwell in Pico Iyer’s Why we travel.

While working on a kitchen garden in another town, I was asked a question by one of the boys watching us work.

“Are you the only boy in the group?’ He asked curiously.

“Yes I am.” I replied politely.

“Why?” He asked, blown away, it seemed, by my answer.

This sort of question is not unfamiliar to me, as I have gotten it from so many Rwandans and even by friends and family back home. Many find it strange why I would agree to come on this trip knowing I would be the only male student. While I like to think of our group as a unit where everyone plays their part and gender is irrelevant, the matter does arise more often than I would hope. Even I had my doubts about it the first time I met the others, wondering “what have you gotten yourself into Grant?” in the back of my head. After our first retreat, however, my reservations disappeared almost completely, as I found that I got along with everyone rather well. Everyone in the group seemed like perfect people to go on an adventure with, and isn’t that what travel is supposed to be, an adventure? Whenever it comes up, it’s usually in the form of good-natured jokes. They laugh about my presence whenever they talk female bodily functions or call me cold when the books we share never bring me tears, while I counter with what I call my little “perks” (examples include never having to share a room, children running to them before me, and the less shaving I have to do). While I do miss having talks about gaming (sadly, I am the only gamer here) and other “manly” things, I love our group and wouldn’t trade it for the world.

The issue does come up here however, and with Rwanda still being a somewhat patriarchal society, I feel like some can be confused by my presence. While I am not the only male member of the group, our teacher Tim’s leadership position creates a much different experience for him than I have. I am not, by nature, an assertive person, and my passiveness can keep me from those strong connections many of my other group members have developed. Many of these relationships have developed around the basket weaving collective Covaga, run by a cooperative of women in Gashora. Being male, I lack the instant connection many of our group felt with the women there, and at times I felt like they did not know what to think of me, which my passive nature did little to help. One of our friends from the community said that he was going to be sad to see me go, but whispered that I should make more men go next year. During our building of the kitchen gardens, I could sometimes feel the stares of the people watching me while I stood, not knowing what to do about my presence. Despite these few isolated incidents, the welcome I have gotten from the community in Gashora has been overwhelmingly positive. Many who had seemed confused by me generally just accept me like they do the other group members, with open arms and hearts. Being the only male student in an all-female group may seem strange to some, in the end it really doesn’t matter, since it’s about personality, not what is on the outside.

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