Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Day In The Life Of A Rwandan Family

I was fortunate on my trip to Rwanda to participate through World Vision in a day in the life of a Rwandan family. We arrived at Alice’s house which was built for her by World Vision, she has two daughters and Alice herself is a survivor of the Genocide. She and her youngest daughter are both HIV positive and life has been a real struggle. Upon on our arrival we were greeted by a woman who was warm and wonderful, despite her HIV status she exudes life, love, appreciation and an unwavering sense of hope. Alice has hope for herself and for her young daughters because through World Vision she has found a hand up and is learning to make a better life.

We were divided in different groups and house hold chores that would normally be done by Alice and her daughters were assigned to us. I volunteered to be part of the group that would go and gather firewood. With Alice’s oldest daughter in the lead and Costa following behind us to act as our interpreter off we went. We traveled down the road past Alice’s neighbors for quite a distance happily waving to all the curious onlookers. We were pumped! This was fun! We picked the best job of them all! We chatted excitedly. Turning a corner we began our decent down into the valley, the trail was rough and the sun was beating down on us mercilessly and the excitement was beginning to wane. Down we went further and further from Alice’s house, as we reached the bottom of the hill and began crossing the valley we came across a water hole with small children gathered next to it. Costa stopped to speak with the children, and picking up a long stick he plunged it into the filthy stagnant water showing us just how deep it was. He spoke with the children a little more and we continued on our way; we hiked across the valley and began to climb the other side where our search for fire wood would begin. Alice’s daughter stopped in an area that had many dead trees and branches, she began dragging out the larger ones and breaking them into smaller pieces that would be easier to carry. The rest of our group began doing the same, it didn’t take long to realize that the branches were covered in thorns and we had to be careful not to injure ourselves. I was sweating, my fingers were bleeding from the thorns and all I had to show for my efforts was a pitiful looking pile of sticks! So pitiful was my little pile that an old Rwandan woman, who came walking down the hill, looked at me and my pile and began laughing, she was so sweet and her laughter was so infectious I began laughing right along with her. Next thing I know she’s grabbing branches and breaking them like they’re toothpicks, soon my pile wasn’t so pitiful. We chatted for awhile, or should I say she chatted while I shook my head smiling, not understanding a single word but never the less enjoying her cheerful company and assistance. After helping me she journeyed on down the hill and began chatting with Costa, they seemed to be having quite the intense conversation so I headed down to find out what she was saying.

She asked him who we were and what we were doing gathering firewood with Alice’s daughter. Costa explained to her what was happening and she began thanking him and World Vision for the miracle they had preformed for Alice and her family. She was so grateful for all that had been done to help Alice, that she along with the other neighbors felt like Alice had truly received a miracle. At the time I had a hard time to wrap my head around that, here we were sweating like pigs scratched and bleeding just from gathering the fire wood, and I wondered how Alice’s life was so much better? After the old woman thanked us and continued on her way the children that had been down by the water hole began making their way past us headed toward the top of the hill. I cannot tell you how heartbreaking it was to see such small children struggling to carry their water jugs up this steep and uneven walking path. A couple members of our group helped them carry the water to the top of the hill to the makeshift shack they were living in. All of these children under the age of five and were there alone, no parents in sight, they were off working in the fields and the kids were left to do the chores and look after one another. We asked Costa if these children were part of the sponsorship program and he told us they were not. He knew of them, but since they were transient workers they did not qualify for sponsorship, they had no permanent residence and they moved quite often. With heavy hearts, we bundled up our piles of wood and began the long journey back to Alice’s house – down the hill across the valley and back up the other side. At one point I was so hot and tired I just wanted someone to shoot me and put me out of my misery, but alas there were no guns to be found so I had to just suck it up and keep moving. I did get a bit of a reprieve when Costa’s cell phone rang, and Costa with the largest pile of wood stacked on top of his head chatted happily on his phone while climbing the steepest part of the hill! I had to laugh, we were just dying, barely able to speak and here was Costa going along like he was on a leisurely stroll chatting all the while.

When we finally made it back to Alice’s house, we dumped our wood on a pile and headed out in search of some shade. I found a small patch along the side of her house next to the cow and goat; I sat drinking water and trying to cool down. As I rested I began thinking just how much work that had been, it really hit home when I realized that either Alice or her daughter do this every single day – twice a day, just themselves. A short time later the group that went to gather grass for the goat and cow came back, they were just as battered and worn as we were. They suffered from cuts they received while cutting and bundling the long sharp grass – it was nothing like the grass we have at home, this stuff could seriously be used as a weapon. The other group that had gone out to the fields to gather vegetables was busy peeling and preparing them to be cooked in a stew that we would later eat for lunch. It had taken us almost 2 hours to gather the wood and just as long for them to clean and peel the vegetables. Finally the food was in the pot cooking over an open fire and we sat in the shade shelling raw peanuts and fending off the goat. That goat would eat anything including our hair and clothing. On this day no one went to gather water – the well was so far away they didn’t think we could possibly survive the journey and it saddens and humbles me to know that they were right. At least they are able to gather water from a fresh water well and not the dirty stagnant water hole we passed on our journey for firewood.

When I put the day’s events into perspective, I understood why the odds are against the people of Africa. It took 14 people to do what a 13 year old and an HIV positive woman do all by themselves everyday. These chores for them have to be done one at a time, gathering firewood, fetching water, gathering grass for the animals and vegetables from the field would take them hours to do on their own. It took two hours to just wash and prepare the vegetables for cooking; they do not have cutting boards and sharp knives like we do.

All this has to be done before they can have their first meal, some how they also have to find the time to earn some sort of income during the day, go to school and then repeat the whole process over again before the sun goes down and it’s dark. This is Alice’s reality, this is her life every single day, and for her she has it good – very good thanks to the support she receives from World Vision. Can you even imagine what it must be like for those who have no help, those struggling without the sponsorship of World Vision? Alice is an example of what sponsorship can achieve, she and her daughter are on anti-retroviral medications, and they are doing really well. The oldest daughter has been able to catch up in school now that her mother isn’t in the hospital sick all the time; they have a cow that will give birth to a calf in October providing additional income for their family. This one thing that to us seems so small, to them it is like they have won the lottery. Before World Vision built them their new home they were living in the shelter that is now home to the cow and goat! Yes their life is still very hard by our standards, but at least they have a nice home, fresh food to eat, livestock for additional income, and medical coverage that keeps them all healthy. The girls are getting an education and they have hope – there was a time when they had none of that, yes you could say World Vision has given them a miracle and it’s called a sponsorship.

The day was hard, it was an eye opening experience and Alice and her two daughters were absolutely wonderful. We shared chores, good food, fanta and we all danced the hokey-pokey. This was a good day and when we had to say goodbye, my heart was bursting with joy for this little family that despite their hardships and struggles in life were truly a story of success and hope.


Friday, September 11, 2009

It's A Boy!

This morning I made myself a cup of Rwandan coffee, as I raised the cup to my mouth and breathed in the aroma I was instantly transported back in time and a wave of memories washed over me. It was a good feeling, I experienced so many wonderful things while I was there and it was nice to have those memories come flooding back.

There are people that I met who inspired me and challenged me to question my beliefs as a person. I miss Costa, he is an amazing individual who can brighten the darkest day with just a smile. No matter what the situation or the circumstance or how dire things may seem, he will always find the answer to any problem with the simple solution of I. If you ask him who is responsible for the Genocide he will respond I, and if you ask him who will heal the country? His response will be I; you see Costa believes that each of us is responsible for the things that happen in our lives and in our world. You can change no one but yourself, and if every one of us took this philosophy to heart the entire world would change. All these suffering children would be helped and no one would be in need. If I ask you as individuals who will save these children and everyone answered I -- just think what could happen.

I miss Costa, I miss the warmth and generosity of the Rwandan people and I miss all those children. I even miss the sadness, the poverty and the feelings of helplessness. I miss the joyful way we were greeted each morning and how they looked you in the eye when speaking to you. I miss the laughter, the goats, the chickens and I even miss those stupid birds that woke me up before my alarm each day.

At times I felt overwhelmed and helpless, I lived in the moment never thinking ahead one foot in front of the other. Laughing children, crying babies, dirty faces and runny noses -- those were some of the most beautiful children I have ever seen.

I remember standing on a road in Nyamata with my camera and children crowded around me clamouring to see their picture, a tiny child with wild hair and one shoe waddles over to see what the commotion is all about. Her dress dirty beyond anything I have yet to see, face covered in boogers and hair filled with dust, she stands there looking up at me captivated by this stranger she sees. Kathy jumps into action, and as fast as Jack Lightening she's holding a beautiful yellow and white dress with tiny flowers embroidered on it against our tiny visitor. It looks like a perfect fit, we search the crowd to find the mother and as I bend down to take a picture the mom is already removing the old dress. As she lifts it up and over the toddlers head to my utter shock and surprise I blurt out, it's a boy! OMG it was a little boy, the mother puts the new dress on him and away they go! The three of us look at each other and burst out in laughter we darn near pissed our pants. It is good to find humor in situations that would otherwise break your heart; these are the things I try to hold on to now that I am home.

Like the time that Costa, Vickie and I were at a school for sponsorship visits and our driver Samuel wandered off (he had a habit of doing this). We had no idea where he was and we had to drive to the home of a little boy I was scheduled to meet. Costa jumps into the driver's seat and tells us he will drive -- Vickie and I look at each other with shock and horror, we have only known Costa to drive a motor bike and never a car. We ask him who taught him to drive and his response is I. The van is a standard and Costa grinds the gears for what seemed like a life time until the the three of us take off, the van groaning and lurching we make our way onto the bumpy dirt road. Vickie and I stick our heads out the window and tell the children following all around us -- run, run for your lives! Costa is driving the van! Lurching, groaning almost stalling we make our way along the road, turning a corner and narrowly missing a house by a mere inch. We continue along a bumpy road that eventually turns into a trail and then not even that. Vickie and I fearing we may never make it back to civilization realize that we are no longer on a road, we are now driving over small trees and tall grass, as we continue to bump along Costa it seems never changes gears. Eventually we make it to a house in the middle of no where and I ask Costa how he plans to turn the van around. Surrounded by trees and shrub brush Costa seems quite concerned -- actually he tells us he is worried! Vickie (super woman)jumps into action telling Costa not to worry she can turn the van around! I get out of the van and fearing the worst, I back as far away as I can and look behind at the crowd of people that were gathered to partake in our visit. Vickie climbs into the van and begins backing up almost hitting a big tree! Next thing you know dirt is flying everywhere and all I can hear is the howling laughter behind me. Tires spinning, dirt flying, gears grinding, it was quite a show! After what sounded like tires popping she finally got the van turned around to the delight of the cheering crowd behind me. Costa runs to Vickie giving her a big hug and tells her she saved his life. We continued on with our visit which was very pleasant and uneventful, except for the fact that I thought I would be meeting a boy and it turned out she was a girl! Thank goodness she loved soccer! The journey back was pleasant and I think Costa may have changed gears once or twice! The next day everytime Samuel had to fill the tires with air Vickie and I would break out in laughter, it will forever be our little secret as to why the tires kept getting low. Vickie (superwoman) you are a maniac!


Friday, September 4, 2009

Wait For Me

It's been a few days now since I arrived home from Rwanda, the jet lag is starting to subside and Stephanie is back at school. The quiet inside my house is deafening and the sadness in my heart at times is overwhelming. Has this journey changed me as a person? I'd have to say no -- I changed many years ago, or maybe this is who I always was and I let life and circumstances get in the way. I knew this would be a difficult journey; I prepared myself as best I could. I faced my fears, and forged ahead to challenge myself in ways I could have never dreamed possible. I found courage and strength I never new I possessed and still it was not enough. I worked hard and gave all that I had in order to find sponsors for children I would be meeting and yes that is good, but in the grand scale of need that I was confronted with -- it was woefully insufficient. I find it hard to take comfort in the fact that I did my best; sadly I have learned that there are times in life when our best just isn't good enough. There is nothing I can tell myself to make it better when confronted with a room full of HIV positive mothers at an emergency feeding center, breast feeding their babies knowing full well that the disease that is ravaging their bodies may be passed on to their nursing child. Their options are few, feed their babies formula to negate the transmission risk and deny themselves the medications needed to stay alive. Save the babies - the mothers die. Save the mothers, and some of the babies will die. They choose the lesser of two evils, how can we who have so much allow this to happen? Knowing this would never be allowed to happen here in Canada is a bitter pill to swallow.

I discovered that I myself am deeply flawed, there were times I could not look at the children, I cowered and faltered drowning in my own inadequacies, their needs were just so great and all I had was myself. I could do nothing to ease their suffering, I wanted to run, to leave them all behind and shut my eyes. Just when I thought I could not go on another moment, tiny fingers entwined in my hair and the gentle stroking of little hands upon my skin would bring me back to reality. There in the sadness and despair, children calling photo! photo! that one small thing I could do for them brought smiles to their faces, it wasn't much but it was something.

Along with the sadness there were moments of exquisite joy and hope that seemed boundless, staring out the back window of our van as we bounced along a road that was only fit for goats to travel upon; children running behind us their little feet kicking up clouds of red dust, waving, laughing, so full of joy if made your heart ache. Suddenly there she was maybe 4 years old her bright red and white shirt caught my eye, I waved and when she saw me, a smile that could light up all of Rwanda filled her face and she began to run. She ran and ran as fast as those little legs could carry her; great big jug of water on her head be damned, she was keeping up with the big kids! The faster we went the harder she ran, the look on her face seemed to be saying wait for me! Stop the van! Stop the Van! Kathy yelled. As we pulled to a stop all of a sudden there she was smiling up at me, a look on her face like she had just won the lottery; it is a moment frozen in time, a face I will never forget, hope and innocence that was so beautiful and pure it took my breath away. Her strength and determination gives me inspiration to keep fighting for all these precious little children who deserve so much more.

When you look at her face, please keep in mind the least of what you have is more than she could ever hope for. Maybe today is the day you choose to become a hero to a little boy or girl just like her. Call me, together we can bring hope where only moments ago there was none.