The makings of a beautiful sack garden

The makings of a beautiful sack garden


Don't be fooled by the container, this glass of milk was delicious.


Don't be alarmed: it's not a duck, she's just got a large bill.

And, of course, a cute one for Carol

And, of course, a cute one for Carol


We’re comin’!

31 May 2009

Actually, in some senses, we’ve already arrived.  We have spent ten days stateside and, in that time, moved our earthly belongings and me into the Twin Cities.  Kris is today flying back for a sweet job with Northwest Youth Corps based in Eugene, OR and I begin training today with Wilderness Inquiry.  No worries–we’re still very much together!  Anyway, that info is for those that think we may have fallen into a hole in East Africa.  We do plan on finishing our blog stories at some point, many for our own satisfaction and memories, but you are welcome to benefit from that as well, if you’re patient enough.  Thanks for all your interest and comments and especially love!

So, its finally happened. After all the traveling I’ve done over the years, my purse has finally been stolen.

I was careless. At a restaurant in Gulu (northern Uganda), sitting outside, I had thrown my purse on the chair beside me and was holding my head in my hands, suffering from cramps. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a hand retract into the darkness behind me. I jumped up and confirmed that my purse was no longer there. I ran into the restaurant and almost collided with Kris coming back from the bathroom. He and two men took off running. I started crying, thinking of my purse’s contents: passport, credit card, about 250USD, phone, and notes. We are scheduled to leave in less than one week and my passport had just bolted into the dark street.

The women of the restaurant started retelling the story to anyone that would listen. A man from the neighboring store came over to see what was happening. “I saw the boy and said to myself, ‘That boy is running too fast. He has stolen something.'” The women tried to comfort me, “Don’t you cry. I know that boy. He always comes back to this place.” That’s all well and good, but he’ll come back empty-handed, I assure you.

After not too long, Kris came back. The boy, of course, was gone. We were escorted to the police station where we explained what happened and our escort described the boy. The officer said they’d alert the patrolling police to keep an eye out. Back at the restaurant, we sat down to eat, praying the boy wouldn’t be beaten if found and promising the owner (henceforth known respectfully as Buddha) we’d pay him in the morning.

Midway through my rice and beans, the women came to our table and said, “Come see the boy who took your things.” Huh? We walked around the corner to see about 10 street boys crowded behind one of their own who was pleading with Buddha. Evidently, Buddha, one of the largest men I’ve seen in Africa, generously feeds the street boys from time to time in his restaurant. In an effort to maintain that relationship, the boys who witnessed the theft apprehended their own compadre and brought him in. Buddha, surprisingly jolly, listened patiently as the boy said over and over that it wasn’t him. Buddha’s friend assured the boy he wouldn’t be beaten, he wouldn’t be arrested, in fact he could keep the money, but we needed our documents. After several minutes, the boy finally agreed. With his arm solidly around the boy, Buddha’s equally patient friend escorted the boy around town to the various locations that he had hid my things.

They returned and encouraged me to check carefully through the bag. Yes passport. Yes phone–no SIM card. Yes Ugandan shillings–no US dollars. Yes notes to myself and from my mother. Yes bobbypin?–no hotel keys. Out they went again, returning with the hotel keys that had fallen as he ran. His group then searched his three pairs of shorts and found our SIM card. Amazing. A couple stories about the location of the 200USD came out, and we have some theories of our own, but we have accepted them as lost. It would probably cost that much or more to expedite a new passport.

Buddha, gentle, laughing, patient, and just, encouraged us to pay the boys something small for bringing in their friend. He also had the best quote of the night, concerning the police: “First of all, they will do nothing. Secondly, they will delay. And if, IF, they find the money, they would swallow it up.” Wild evening. I am, of course, amazingly grateful.

Not All Hunky Dory

23 April 2009

So our blogs, in my opinion, make it seem like we are having a splendidly positive and positively splendid experience; that we are fantastically optimistic and adaptable people; and that we are having an overall hunky dory time.  I’d like to give another side of this picture.  Please let it be known that these sentiments come from the perspective of Carol Katharine Miller.  Kris certainly has his own views and annoyances and, at the end of the day, “adaptability” ranks in his top five strengths.  Um…I’m a little more critical.

First, some beautiful parts of Rwandese culture–so as to not seem too very vengeful.  We are told over and over that Rwandese people love seeing visitors.  This is most evident in their eagerness to help us find where we are going or what we need in the market.  More recently, we’ve been treated to several drinks at bars and upon any visit to one’s house, it is customary to offer them milk or Fanta and food. It is, in fact, offensive if the food is not accepted. Even in the child-headed-household of 17, 15, and 12-year-old girls, we were given bread. “Visitors are a blessing from God.” Kris and I are planning to follow this custom as carefully and abundantly as possible when we return back home.

The greetings here are fantastic.  Huge slaps on the hand starting above shoulder height and these go to every person in a group or sitting room.  Or, for those more aquainted, grasping both shoulders, pulling close, and touching heads, right side, left side, then middle, always followed by the handshake.  To show respect, a younger person’s left hand will touch their right forearm during a hearty shake.

The sense of community here is much more apparent and integral.  In a crowd, it is difficult to distinguish families as everyone is caring for everyone else’s child.  This is certainly made more difficult when distant relatives are called “my sister” and neighbors are introduced as cousins.  My favorite representation of this is how older children are responsible for caring for younger children.  A seven-year-old will be carrying her year-old brother on her back.  And if a child is crying, the ten-year-old big brother will carry it outside to play.  And in any crowd of children, I can motion to an older child that a little one’s nose is snotty or pants are falling down and he will fix the problem–no questions asked, no “that’s not my job.”

There is a kinyarwanda word, guherekeza, that translates to accompaniment.  After a visit, when we go to leave, most of the household will walk us at least 100m towards our destination.  Usually those we are more aquainted with will continue walking us at least as far as a city block, if not the entire way home.  At home, can we even say honestly that we always walk visitors to the door?

Okay, now let’s get dirty and talk about why some mornings I want to lay in bed and dream of being any other place (preferably one that boasts products like gummy candy, ice cream, and cereal).  My intent is not to discourage travel to Rwanda.  Not at all.  It is merely to give a more full picture of our experience and maybe to begin the discussion: are these acts actually rude or do I only see them as rude because I’ve spent 29 years in a different culture and I refuse to assimilate?  (And therefore am I being rude?)

First off, whatever a guide book may tell you, there is no word in the kinyarwanda language for “please.”  Then, people hiss to get your attention–which, I have slowly allowed myself to recognize, is a very effective sound over crowds of people talking or the noise of an engine.  But its a terrible sound.  Thirdly, lines…what lines?  At the post office, getting into a bus, standing at a store’s counter, we’ll be waiting for our turn and a Rwandan will walk between us and start doing business!  One evening, after a woman pushed passed me in the doorway of a shop, it dawned on me.  This is a culture of staring.  And its not just at mzunus!  When some noise begins, a crowd gathers.  I don’t know what they were doing before the show, but it is clearly not as important as witnessing what might go down.  So when I am waiting behind someone ordering bread, to me I am politely waiting for an opening, so as not to step on toes or overwhelm the attendant behind the counter.  To any other passerby, I am merely staring.  Until I speak up, I am obviously only there to pass some time with voyeurism.

Fourth on my list (not in any particular order), is how we mzungus have taught this country to beg.  After years of aid and well-meaning visitors passing out clothes, candies, hats, even (we’ve heard) bags of money, it is assumed every mzungu is obscenely rich.  We can certainly go into the facts comparing the wealth of the USofA and that of Rwanda or how anyone visiting Africa at least has enough money to buy a plane ticket and some time away from work.  What I am addressing, however, is the obserdity that I will stop at every man, woman, and child and hand out is disrespectful–both to me, to the mzungu that follows me, and to the asker who was made for so much more than begging.  I brought a cup of soup one day to the nurse in the clinic Kris and I both visited in Ruhengeri.  The next day, the women in the neighboring salon (or “saloon” if you prefer how most are spelled here) asked me where their soup was.  The next day it was tea.  The next, milk.  And they called me their friend!  I find it difficult to build friendships based on assumptions.

Riding around, especially in places where mzungus only whip through in Land Cruisers or white skin just isn’t inclined to travel, we were constantly being yelled at.  Over and over and over, it was the same line:  Monsieur, monsieur!  Agafaranga!  Money, sir! It was like a record, same words, same pitch, same melody.  We even started joining in, sometimes changing it to Nsohuza, sir! (Greet me, sir!) or Get a job, sir! And then they’d tack on Mzungu kuruhu! After asking around to many people, we finally got a relatively straight answer: there is an ad/skit on the radio instructing people that it is bad to beg from mzungus.  Turns out they have instead taught an entire generation to beg uncreatively.  And this last bit, mzungu kuruhu–no one would give us a straight answer and seemed very uncomfortable when we asked.  Finally, one French speaker along our biking route explained that it means “white skin”–but more than that: “Turns out you are only white by skin, not by wealth, because you gave me nothing.”  The victory of understanding was sweet and made sweeter when our francophone asked me to pay him for the explanation!

And my last gripe, for this post anyway [I’ll bet Kris wishes it was my last gripe], is one near and dear to my heart, gut, and ovaries: the treatment of women.  In response to older children asking us for money, we came up with the response “Go and ask your mama how to work.”  All day, rural women are busy with children, with cooking, with cleaning, with cultivating.  There are particular tasks that are traditionally for boys and others for girls.  Because of the imbalance of these chores, young girls can’t find the time to keep up in school or even to go to school.  And in all our time, I have only seen one drunk woman and countless drunk men.  When we told our buddy Jeffrey this response, he laughed uncomfortably and said he hoped no one could understand us; it would be very offensive.  Is it really so offensive to say you can learn something from your mother?!  St. Marie Eugennie de Jesus coined the phrase “Teach a woman and you teach a community.”  I agree.

On the same note as the treatment of women, but as a new paragraph and a renewed sentiment of angst: flirting with women.  I hate the way some men look at or tug on their female waitresses.  In my experience, it seems men believe I have been granted a special gift to be in their presence and I would be crazy not to desire their advances.  Daily, my relationship with Kris is called into question: friend or brother?  Numerous times I’ve been approached inappropriately sitting right next to Kris.  Here’s a story to further illustrate my point: I went into a milk joint alone to buy doughnuts and hot milk for breakfast.  A man at a near table looked at me like I was a slab of fillet mignon and waved me over to his table.  I shook my head no thank you.  Put some effort in and get off your ass if you want to flirt with me!  Seriously!  After several more denied waves, indeed he headed towards me at the counter.  Stumbling my way through his kinyarwanda, I realized he was planning on walking me home.  I smiled innocently and said, “Sohuza umugabo wanje?” To greet my husband?  Others in the shop snickered and he looked like he’d just noticed he’d been walking around in a pink frilly sequined dress with shoes that didn’t match.

Let me reiterate that there are always exceptions.  Not everyone asks us for money.  Not everyone pushes in line.  Even ex-pats have started using the hiss.  Some people even say thank you!  One of my favorite sights, that will last with me for years, is seeing three young boys, no more than four, standing under a tree, dirt on their clothes and smudged on their faces, with their thumbs up in the air, yelling to us “Komera!  Komera!” Be strong!  We’re with you!

Kind Old Volcanoes

21 April 2009

I awoke early this morning not by a sound, for my perch was high above the early morning clamor of the village below. I was compelled from my warm bed to the cool stone balcony by the excitement of what I might see there. In the dawn light splayed out before me in cold grays and greens was the northern tip of Lake Kivu. Across the still delicate waters rose up the abrupt escarpment of the eastern Congo shore. At the head of the lake the sun sparkled off the roofs of the neighboring towns of Goma and Gisenyi. My eyes quickly sought after and found what they truly desired: not far to the north of the towns lay the volcanoes. First Nyiragongo, identifiable by the cloud emitting from its crater; then Mikeno and Karisimbi poke their cone-shaped heads out further to the northeast. A bird begins singing its morning prayers—as Father Joseph would put it—calls me off the summit of distant peaks to the flower garden below. I tell myself they are prayers of thanksgiving that I could be permitted to peer into a scene of such wondrous creation.

Though from the description this could be some ruler’s lofty castle (and indeed, at times, it felt like one) it was actually the Kivumu Parish, our lodging the first night of our journey from Gisenyi to Kibuye—the first leg of our ride along the western shore of Lake Kivu. This was our first excursion off the smooth tarmac and onto the dirt track. We didn’t really know what to expect. Our only info came from stories of folks who had driven the road. Any tour biker can tell you that intel coming from drivers can be hazardous to translate to bikers who are their own engine. Carol has little mountain biking experience, and I haven’t owned a mountain bike in seven years. We were prepared for a lot of walking our bikes up and down the hills of Rwanda. We both were surprised when the road ended up being in relatively good shape. We learned quickly to bank to the outside of turns to avoid the drainage ruts created by the obsessive rains.

The surface is made up of just larger than fist-sized rocks packed in with dirt. The one time we did ride in a vehicle these rocks didn’t provide much bang or bounce. But on a bike it’s a bit like going over and over a washboard. We learned to steer off to the side as best we could, and then one day we came upon a section of road with large potholes and deep ruts. I noticed there were not as many of those medium sized rocks here where the road conditions deteriorated and came to the understanding that it was these rocks which held our lovely boulevard from eroding into the sea. So it was either jostle along at a good pace over stones or slowly weave your way around and through a pockmarked path. Despite the daily soreness in my hands and arms I came to appreciate those stones. Riding the dirt road held an additional delight in that there was very little vehicle traffic and we felt, at times, like queens and kings of the road swerving back and forth at whim in order to find the smoothest line.

Kivumu is about 25km from Gisenyi and we arrived with our usual escort of children tired and sweaty after our mostly uphill ride. After inquiring on the whereabouts of the father we peered around a corner and surprised ourselves and our host when we saw that we both were mzungu. The father took us in and invited us, without formal introduction of any kind, to look through his collection of photos. Beautiful native birds, plants, flower blossoms, kind smiling faces, coffee trees (the local export crop), and volcanoes graced the pages. We soon learned more about the geology, botany, and ornithology of Rwanda in those two hours of looking at pictures and walking through the gardens of the parish than in our previous six months here. Father Joseph originally alighted to Rwanda from his native Belgium when he was 19 to begin his seminary studies. 50 years later he is still here living and serving in the land he loves. His big rosy cheeks, gentle smile, and excitement over spelunking and mountaineering at age sixty will stay clear in my memory for some time.

The road to Kivumu was also the first time we heard children consistently asking us for candy. Flying down the track, or more likely, puffing in granny gear up the hills we would hear cries of “aga bon bon, aga bon bon.” On this bike tour I quickly realized that patience is harder to come by when you’re already frustrated by the slow slog of ascending hill after hill. So we started to come back with responses like, “where do you think we have candy on our bikes?” or “what mzungu’s been giving you so much candy?” This dilemma hung in our minds like an empty-handed pouty-lipped child as we climbed up towards Kivumu. Things became a bit ridiculous when once or twice we heard adult voices among the children’s. I have one particular memory of catching up to Carol as she was harshly chastising this man on the side of the road. Alarmed, I said, “what happened?!” When I found out that she was mad because it was a grown man this time asking for candy I broke out in laughter. Everyone enjoys a little sweet once in a while—more frequently if you are Carol Miller. The irony of the scene was like candy to me. Nearing dusk Father Joseph kindly took us around to point out some of the interesting parish history (such as 40 buried lava boulders from the bottom of Lake Kivu each dating 3 million years old). When he questioned some young kids about whether or not they were nicking his flower buds the gentle father rewarded with a reach into his pocket for some candy. Carol and I exchanged surprised, though knowing smiles. Bon bons materialized from the father’s jacket pocket on more than one occasion that evening. When we brought our experience on the road to his attention later that day he smiled and said something to the effect “kids like candy”—as if we could ever sway the habits of a kind old priest.

The next morning we showed father Joseph our map and he helped us pick out a couple of other parishes we might be able to stay at along the road to Kibuye. We left early and covered a good distance when it started raining around noon. Clouds swirled up around the ridge where we had stopped creating ominous shapes and then dissipating as quickly as they had formed. A sharp burst of wind was our final warning before the heavens opened to another heavy downpour. Fortunately we were able to duck into a little shop for lunch. We gave the rains a while to putter out, but eventually we were forced out of hiding regardless. We donned our raingear and pursued a locally recommended shortcut to get us to our destination. The shortcut turned out to be slippery yet brilliantly direct in getting us to the next parish. We arrived so early that we decided to continue onto Mushubati.

We arrived at the gate of Father Joseph’s friend, Father Murenzi, only to hear that he had no room at the parish. We could pass the night at a nearby school he just recently helped establish. The school turned out to be the Komera Center for traumatized, deaf, and disabled children. Komera has many meanings in Kinyarwanda. In this case it refers to becoming strong or building up oneself. We were greeted by Leoncia, a kind sister from Tanzania, who left her community to work full-time with youth. The kids were on holiday during our visit, yet we were still given a tour of each classroom by Leoncia and Martin, who is the visiting sign language instructor. Even though he is deaf himself, I was impressed by how adept Martin is at communicating with sign and without (for those folks like me who can’t even produce the letters of their name). Carol has learned many signs from classes and self-teaching over the years and she was excited to have the opportunity to communicate and practice. I would love to talk at great length about the Komera center and its accolades in curriculum, parent involvement, sustainability, etc. with anyone who is interested. This conversation needs to happen outside of a post, though. Carol and I both dream of spending a week with the kids of Komera, and she very well might in the coming weeks. Nevertheless, we had to move on the next morning to get to Kibuye.

The Mystery of Rwaza

20 April 2009

It began in 2007 with a three month volunteer stint at Rwaza Orphanage.  The village of Rwaza is located 12km from the town of Ruhengeri in the northwest province of Rwanda.  We had been keeping somewhat up-to-date with the goings on at the orphanage through emails from an older girl and a teacher/caretaker/nun.  But just before coming, it started to get a bit confusing.  And as we were googling [yes, its a verb] projects in Rwanda, Rwaza orphanage kept coming into view.  It seemed many people had been visiting as of late.  GVN, the sketchy volunteer program we went with, hadn’t been involved since mid-2007.  But we were reading of others’ visits, then a website claiming ten of the children had been kicked out by the “mean old nun” and a missionary couple in Ruhegeri had adopted them.  And that the rest of them had been relocated closer to the parish and were under the priet’s supervision.  Huh?!  Where was Mama Deo in all this (the “mean old nun” who has dedicated her life to raising children in need)?  And, more disconcerting, where was the truth?

I think it need not be said, but we were nervous for our first visit.  Nervous that the kids might not remember us, nervous that they would remember us as ‘those people who left us like everyone else has’, nervous in what state we might find them.  So we prayed.  And we asked around.  Our pal, Dusi, that was our translator/guide in 2007 and our 2009 host of three weeks, told us what he knew–nothing too new.  Then we visited the old program coordinator, a Canadian woman who still lives in Ruhengeri with a project of her own, and she was frank and painfully honest as ever–but her honesty is expressing only her view of the situation.  So we made the trek up to Rwaza, by bicycle of course.

It is a beautiful ride, downhill first for quite a while, then off left on a dirt track that winds through a valley with a calm muddy river, passed fisherman in carved-out canoes with bamboo poles.  And passed countless men, women, and children walking everywhere and nowhere.  Over a bridge, then climbing again through plot after plot of cultivated land and folks repairing the road.  We arrived sweaty at Rwaza parish, home to four priests and 9000 regular Sunday parishoners, but 60,000 Catholics in the surrounding hills.  There we saw the familiar round smiley face of Abbey Bonaventure.  After a very warm greeting, he ushered us into his dining room where, mysteriously, three places where set and waiting.  A fabulous meal.  And the conversation definitely enlightened us to all the many projects he has going, as well as the current status of the orphanage–well, his truth, anyway.

Apparently, an Austrian NGO that got involved not long before we came in 2007, had signed a contract saying they will support the children, all 55 of them, with food, uniforms, school fees, English teacher, until the youngest of them has graduated university–30 years.  Wow.  They have specified, I think for the children’s sake, that they must be the only sponsors for this time.  There is a terrible problem here with people “selling” children–taking pictures, setting up a website, and asking for money because, really, who is going to turn down these beautiful faces?  For this reason and the wisdom that children are better off raised in a family environment, the government has discouraged any orphanages.  This one, therefore, is no longer Rwaza Orphanage, but Mountain Gorrilla Education Center.  And Bonaventure explained it as a response to a problem, rather than creating an orphanage.

After filling our bellies, Bonaventure walked us down the road to the Center.  Many children came out to greet us and one man, the English teacher, lead us on a tour of the facilities.  The parish donated the land and four big new buildings were built–a large meeting hall with five computers available for typing practice and a large kitchen, an office for the director and store room for food, then boys and girls dormatories, with stalls for bucket baths.  The rooms had three bunk beds each and every child has their own bed.

So they did remember us!  Even our names!  We recognized most of them and remembered many of the names.  One older gal was heading to shower, saw us and shrieked, rushed back to her room to put clothes on, then pratically tripped down the hill to embrace us!  It was wonderful to see the children, look them in the eye, touch their hands, exclaim about how much they’d grown, and see that they are well-fed and taken care of.  The sun was setting and rain was threatening, so we ended this visit.

The following weekend we road again towards Rwaza.  This time, however, we passed it and came up the back way.  The other side of the hill holds the home called Gako–where the boys lived in 2007.  Now it is the home to Mama Deo, four children, and two helping sisters (nuns-in-training, really).  They were thrilled to receive us and greeted us so warmly.  Mama Deo is going on 70-something and still plays little games with the children, holds them by the hand, and somehow still hauls their growing bodies up into her lap.  She was ordered last September (when the children were transfered to the Center) to rejoin the convent so she could be cared for there.  She refused.  I mentioned that Bonaventure had told us that she will join this year and one of the sisters said, “She can refuse.”  The worry is what happens to the children when she passes.  That is a big part of the reason for the new center.  But the children still visit her daily.  And the older ones away at secondary school or university, come home to her on their school breaks.  She is not a perfect woman and rumors abound about her terrible money management skills, but I refuse to believe she doesn’t love these children and live with almost the sole intention of being Jesus to them.

Our close friend (one of the nuns-to-be), Eujennie, gave us a tour of the area–plenty of land to cultivate food for Mama and the children, they are never want for food.  Then she accompanied us all the way over the hill to see the state of the old orphanage building.  It was being used as a nursery school, but now it is empty.  The fence and gate and many of the doors are missing, the water line has been destroyed, the stoves demolished.  Eujennie kept repeating that there was grass growing everywhere.  It was kind of an erie place, really.  We came upon an old woman who is living in one of the rooms there.  I was worried for her safety, but Eujennie was most moved by loneliness: ‘she doesn’t even have a child with whom she can chat.’  Eujennie made us privvy to her truth of the situation as well–yes, ten children were bribed away from the orphanage.  Most of them have come back.  The government authorities told the missionaries to get their own kids from somewhere else; these are already in a family.  She and Bonaventure have different opinions of each other and how honest the other is.  I don’t know who’s right and I don’t really need to know.  I think they are both helping.  And I thank them.

From there, we descended back to the Center for our last visit.  The sun had nearly set, so we didn’t have much time.  Again, the children came out to greet us.  We hugged them and told them we love them.  Then we rode away.  My parting memory is of riding on the other side of the lush green valley from six girls who had been sent to fill water jugs in the dimishing sunlight.  They yelled good night to me–I yelled back that I love them–and they returned with “And you!”  “Carolina! Njoro giza!”  “Yego!  Nda bu kundu chani chani!”  “Nawe!” I’m tearing up a bit as I write this.

What they don’t know is that we may never see them again.  We were so thankful to see them safe and cared for and supported.  We were not allowed to take pictures of them without consent from the Austrian NGO.  And we can’t write them without this consent either.  We may ask–it would be amazing to hear of their successes as they grow up.  But we also feel peaceful about letting a good thing be a good thing.  We don’t want to add confusion into their lives.  They are developping relationships with their sponsors that I hope will last years.  We were around for three months, and there are many other folks in this world lacking support and love.  We’re not withdrawing our love from them, of course, its only growing to include more people.

Hmm.  Was that a journal entry or a blog post?  I’m not sure.  Likely very emotional and climactic for Kris and I, but hardly riveting reading.  I can tell you more about our time in Ruhengeri?  We drank lots of warm milk, often in the evenings over our journals or books.  Once with a homemade cardboard and toothpicks cribbage set.  We took many a trip to the two markets–one is for food, the other for stuff–and loved cooking at home with Dusi.  We got acquainted with some of Dusi’s many friends–we joke that he is the mayor of Ruhengeri with how many people he knows and how many laps of town he does in one day–and reaquainted with some old friends.

Dusi poses proudly with our finished chicken coop

Dusi poses proudly with our finished chicken coop

We were even so blessed to run into several of the Rwaza children who were now living and schooling in town.  We both visited the clinic across the street and were prescribed antibiotics–the catch-all, evidently.  We spent evenings sewing pants for Kris, a dress for me, and flags of Rwanda for gifts.  We got $3 pedicures and built a chicken coop.  Chickens are odd creatures, man!  Hopefully the girls at Ubushobozi will get more protein into their diets, if those freeloading chickens ever start laying some eggs!  [For more information about Ubushobozi–which is a sweet project in its infancy which we got to support a bit while we were there–read Kris’ post about The Projects.]


Now, sitting comfortably in Megan and Taylor’s house in Kigali, more than three weeks after the fact, I can’t remember quite what day we left Ruhengeri for Gisenyi. Oh wait, that’s not true. We had gone back to Kigali for a weekend visit, taking the 5:30am Saturday bus, purely to see a World Cup qualifying match between Rwanda and Algeria and to bake cookies. So we bused back Sunday, packed up, and left Monday morning (30 March?) after loving goodbyes from Dusi and the Ubushobozi gals.

According to the map (which we have since learned is rather inaccurate or maybe their goal was estimations?), there was only one town in the 62k that might have a guesthouse. So only 20k into the trip, even before lunch, we stopped at Busogo to be the guesthouse’s first non-Rwandan visitors. We spent the afternoon on the internet, showering, reading and the evening drinking with local university students. They invited us to eat dinner, on them, at their campus cafeteria—certainly a site for all the other students packed on to the benches and tables. Surprisingly similar to an American campus, except for the only food choice being rice, beans, potatoes, sauce, and tea. It was so lovely to be treated to a meal.

The next morning brought rain. First a hard downpour, then it let up to a drizzle. Somehow, with this our tenth day of biking, it was our first time pulling out our rain gear (for me a sensible rain jacket, for Kris a massive army poncho that acted like a sail on otherwise delicious downhills). All 42k were spent in drizzle. Partway through the day, as hunger was slowly making us grumpy, we pulled into a small town and started asking for a restaurant. (Generally, we picnic, but naturally with the rain, we sought shelter and hot tea.) We were directed behind the first set of buildings on the road to a small cement rectangle that was full of men. One was a truck driver, a few moto drivers, just a local hangout, evidently, by the way they were all joining each other’s conversations. We each ordered a plate of fabulous Rwandan food and a tea. Three men in the next table started asking for tea in English, in honor of us. They were laughing away and demanding tea. I started demanding they say “please,” which they did and when the tea arrived they all gave a big “thank you” to the waitress, evoking applause from another waitress! The atmosphere was super jovial—

and suddenly I was transported back to another time and another life: I saw us in an old-fashioned ski lodge, all protected from the weather outside, all cuddling in close and drinking hot beverages. I looked around and, due to the rain and cold, many were sporting wool caps and thick jackets. One man—I kid you not—was wearing snowboard boots. And then I saw him: a sweatered man, sitting on a stool in the middle, slightly higher than everyone else, great posture, legs crossed, both hands cupping his mug, looking like some bourgeois skier from the early days in front of the fire. I laughed until I was crying, which made a scene of its own. I needed that laugh and thanked him heartily on his way out. Mounting our bikes after, he was on the side of the road, wearing (classic Rwanda) just the detachable hood from someone’s purple jacket. I thanked him again and he wished us a safe journey.

Gisenyi is along the northern shore of Lake Kivu and is basically the same town as Goma in the DR Congo, except for the border gate and massive wall dividing them. We had come here both as a starting point for our ride south along Kivu and to visit a few friends. From the orphanage, I had kept in touch with a young-twenties gal named Mami and now she is studying at university in Gisenyi with two other friends, Mugeni and Annuarite. They met us the following day with tight hugs and huge smiles. Together we walked to the only park I’ve seen in all of Rwanda and sat along the lakeshore, chatting and catching up. It was really lovely to connect with them.

The following day, we met up with another friend named Jeffrey, who had been the cook for a British couple teaching two years ago at a different university. We had stayed with them a bit, enjoyed them and Jeffrey (and Jeffrey’s cooking) greatly. Since, they’ve started an organization called HARP (Help A Rwandan Person) and Jeffrey is their in-country, super-smart, super-gentle guy. He took us to visit the old folks’ home that they’ve started together—quite possibly the first of its kind in Rwanda, maybe all of East Africa. Traditionally, the older generations live with their children. But in Rwanda, with the genocide in 1994, the older generation is sparse anyway, but of many of those who survived, their children have died before them.

HARP is supporting two old women and one old man in a house a little ways outside of town. A boy is paid to cook and clean for them and a couple other folks come by quite regularly to visit. (One such generous visitor is “Mother,” who I’ll introduce you to in a moment.) Only the two women were there when we came by. “Hello, how are you?”  “Oh, just waiting to die.”  They were seriously funny and feisty old women, though there was truth to that statement as well.  Jeffrey told us their families are dead, their friends are dead, and they are asking why they too haven’t yet died.  Through Jeffrey, we were able to ask them a couple questions. “When were you born?” provoked responses of “when So-and-so was king” and “when the Germans left”—both dating them to about eighty or ninety. We asked what their fathers did for work: one was a farmer for the king and the other didn’t have to work because he had so many cows! When asked what they missed from older Rwanda, they replied almost in unison: MILK. (Evidently, nowadays it is diluted with water, but then it was thick and perfect.)

Jeffrey took us that evening to visit Mother, a wise, faithful, unshakeable woman with a heart the size of the DRC (which is to say it is approximately 87 times too big to fit in her own country). She visits the women and man at the home often, as well as keeping track of her own eight children. Her hospitality was such that we couldn’t refuse; in fact, our polite “oh no, please don’t bother yourself making a meal for us” was met with indignation that we’d offend her if we didn’t eat. And won’t we stay the night?! She fed us and loved on us with wisdom and prayers (of safety and of child-bearing).

We stayed four nights, I believe, in Gisenyi town, under the watchful red eye of Mount Nyiragongo. Le Paradis Malahide, a tranquil hotel about 8k from town, beckoned us one morning and we biked up, over, and down to swim and eat grilled tilapia out on their peninsula restaurant. One afternoon, Kris’ deep longing was finally fulfilled by joining in a local pickup soccer game. Another afternoon, we went back down to the park to swim and play beach volleyball and soccer. In some ways, I felt the people in Gisenyi were more aggressive than previous towns and in other ways, I felt so blessed and calmed by reconnecting with friends and having access to a large body of water. (Carol)

The Projects

30 March 2009

Hello from sunny northwest Rwanda. I have not sent a post since the first week of our trip so I figured it was about time to write again. Actually, I just caught up with what we have been doing the last few weeks by reading the blog myself for the first time in a long time. Carol is a brilliant storyteller and therefore has claim over our (mis)adventures thus far in Ruhengeri. I thought I would take this opportunity, then, to inform you about some of the projects we’ve explored in our time here. I like elephants, I value the sound of the violin, and I appreciate it when people teach others about gardening, but I LOVE bakeries. I can’t explain it, I just do. I’m often lead astray by the smell of a freshly baked muffin and I grow weak at the knees at the sight of a well-formed crumb. So when I heard about a bakery in Kigali that was helping to fund a children’s center we had to check it out.

The Rebero Orphans Center sits near the top of Gikondo hill in Kigali. There is a bakery there distributing their whole wheat love to shops in the area (to be accurate whole wheat flour is not the flour of choice for Rwandan bakeries; I threw it in there because it sounded swell). Here they bake cakes, sweet rolls, and amandazi (fried sweet bread), pizza and regular white loaves. We also noticed here—and at other bakeries around the country—a new loaf in the shape of a fish…or an alligator…or Lincolns’ beard—you decide.

Bakeries can also be distracting: “people can’t live on bread alone” (though the Lord knows that I’ve often tried). So the primary operation of ROC is in it’s orphan community. I don’t say orphanage because it’s not. Instead the kids of ROC live with families in the community. They attend school in the area, and for the most part integrate into their respective neighborhoods. The families don’t have extra cash lying around so here’s where the profits from the bakery come in: they helped to fund programs for the kids like hiring a teacher to help with their English after school, paying for school fees for the older ones, some extra food for each of the families, and even medical insurance. Yahoo!

It’s a pretty sweet setup. ROC has a lot of good things going for them. They are getting help from some development consulting services and have a vision for building a trade school for street boys in the future. Playing with the kids was fun, and helping out in the bakery was a hoot for me and probably more so for the men who witnessed a mzungu carrying 40 pounds of dough from the mixer to the table and then rolling it out like an old umufundi (dude with skills). We also realized here for the first time that we can let good things be good. That in our search for a way to get involved in a project here we can be grateful to God that we may encounter communities to which we can contribute nothing more than a pat on the back and a keep up the good work (and maybe a small chunk of charge in return for more pizza Yum!).

Another project getting their hands dirty–quite literally–here in Kigali is Gardens for Health, International. GHI’s main aim is to improve the nutrient intake of AIDS/HIV folk through providing them with a more nutritious diet.

In our visit to see them one sunny day we focused specifically on these sack gardens they are teaching folks in the city to make (I think to whoever is interested). I have to give a shout out here to Paulie V., and his South African buddy whose name I can’t remember, and to that buddies dad, Tom(I think that’s his name) because it was through Paul, through Tom or Steve, that I first heard about these gems a few years back. And now they are being taught here Rwandan style. The idea is basically the same for those who are familiar with this method: you take a large sack (the kind that holds 100kg of potatoes) and place an old can with no top or bottom inside it. The can is about the size of a big old Folger’s coffee can. You fill the can with rocks and then around the can with soil. You pick the can up so it’s just sitting on top of the rocks beneath and repeat: first rocks, then soil. Moving the bag up as you go, continue this all the way to the top. When you are done you should have a cylindrical mass of dirt with a rocky core.

If you are like me you could use the help of some pictures to describe this process. I tried to post some tonight but it didn’t work. Hopefully, we can display some soon.

GHI is teaching these gardens to the local community, and some are really taking off: we saw one woman with about ten in her backyard. GHI also attempts to enlighten folks on some of the lesser known nutrient-rich vegetables out there such as the moringa tree. Planting can occur on the horizontal surface at the top as well as being staggered around the outside (the vertical part) of the sack. Originally intended to be constructed under a rain gutter, these gardens can be a boon to any house in Rwanda as the recipient of the grey water from laundry, bath, cleaning veggies, most anything that doesn’t contain too much soap.

Our visit with GHI got C Mill and I pretty stoked on sack gardens. We made one at Taylor and Megan’s before we left Kigali, one at Dusi’s in Ruhengeri and after the gals at Uboshobozi (I will explain soon) got stoked on it we supplied the sacks and seeds (carrots and cabbage), encouraged them all, and even helped make a few at their homes.

Ubushobozi, meaning freedom, is the name of an association in the works started up by a woman named Jeanne who came over to volunteer in Ruhengeri with her daughters a year or so after we did. She hooked up with our ubiquitously happy and ever-optimistic buddy Dusi to purchase a couple of sewing machines, hire on a sewing master and a part time English teacher, and invite two girls around the age of seventeen to come and learn this craft.

The first two students, Aline and Chantel are both orphans without much opportunity for an education past primary school. The aim of the project is to help these girls gain knowledge in a trade that can later provide them and their families with a livelihood. There are now four girls in total. At this point the young project’s main source of funding has come from Jeanne and her sales stateside of the beautiful bags, pants, and skirts the girls have sewn. Dusi oversees all this madness as Jeanne is a teacher in Thailand; the hope is that with some grant money he can even be paid soon. There’s not a website yet, which means a great opportunity for someone to contribute their webskills to this group.

Indego Africa is another project we looked at. Indego is involved with a few women’s crafts cooperatives in the Kigali area. They work to provide a market in the US for the products, and then use the money from (100 percent supposedly) sales to hold trainings. The trainings teach a number of things depending on the desires of each cooperative. They range from English classes to budget keeping to group organization skills. Our friend Megan started working for this small non-profit in the past year and she let C Roll and I tag along on a few of her trips. We witnessed women creating gorgeously tedious gorgeous baskets in one town, and we were able to participate first-hand in the manufacture of a new product at a sewing cooperative in Kigali.

This story started when my Minnesota Twins sports bag I got for free at a game in 04’ gave out not long into our journey. I knew from our last visit that there’s more stunning fabric here than you can shake a bobbin at, so we kept the cord and the leather-reinforced corner grommets and replaced the cheap nylon with some strong new material from the market. It was such a success that we thought it could become a new product line for the women. We received some trial fabric from the only textile factory still in Rwanda (our collective clothing donations killed the rest off long ago). To our pleasant surprise the cord, leather, and grommets were all found locally and the women caught onto Miller’s expert instruction in no time. Hopefully, in the coming years you’ll see some pretty and exotic fabrics at youth soccer matches in the States.

Okay. I have to tell one story for all those who stuck around through my project promotion spiel. On our way up the last hundred meters of the last hill into the pearly gates of Ruhengeri we suddenly heard a loud crack! coming from across the road. When we glanced over even the sweat seeping into our eyes would not diminish the sight of our new trainer—all three and a half feet of him. As we pedaled by a young child of Rwanda no more than five or six years in age leapt of his stoop and screamed at us with such force that I later concluded he had been mute for years prior in preparation for our arrival.

He charged out of his house and parrelled our ascent from his side of the road cheering and gesturing. Any Rwandan child can bellow out at a passing mzungu but this young Bobby Knight had the kind of Al Newman wave em’ on home arm motions that you don’t see everyday. With his face bent in a serious scowl he implored us onward with an in and out motion of his hands that looked as though he was all at once pleading to God for our victory and shooting Spidy webbing at us at the same time.

We passed kid Knight a few days later on our return from the orphanage and experienced the same leaping suddenness, the same pudgy grimace, the same flinging arm motions that will give him carpal tunnel syndrome at age nine, and the same tears of laughter and joy streaming down our faces. We call him our beloved trainer and his spirit and energy will surely bear us up many a hill to come.

Everyday but biking days, Kris is wearing these bright yellow sandals he bought last time called boda boda. They are ridiculously yellow and ridiculously comfortable. Many many children and most laboring adults are also sporting this shoe. I don’t think we’ve been on a walk yet when someone hasn’t commented on his choice of shoe. The classic is to walk past a group of children or a pair women staring at us then, as we pass, their gaze wanders down to our footwear and we hear, “Ah! Mzungu wambaye boda boda!” I like to walk behind Kris and laugh at people’s reaction to his boda boda and his lip ring. It happens constantly. We have asked a few English speakers why the shock and they say, in different words, that they are the poor man’s shoe. And folks here refuse to believe any white person can be poor. Or that Kris can be anything but embarassed to wear them.

I wanted to comment on a few transportational varieties that we witnessed in Kampala. I think they were all in one day even. Not only are their 20+ plus people crammed into hordes of matatus–of which Kris gave an apt description earlier. But swerving in and out of the matatus were two bodas : one carrying a man with a 4-foot by 5-foot pane of glass standing on his lap behind the driver and the other stuffed with three people, two bags, and one rolled bed mat, possibly moving to school. On a side street, there were two men in the process of pushing a refrigerator strapped to the rack of a bicycle. And, at the corner, the faithful pineapple salesman with his wooden wheelbarrow full of the juicy produce.

During one walk in Gakenke, a group of school children bobbled along beside us. One gal, maybe 16 years old in secondary school, joined herself to me and practiced her English. She explained to me that she is an orphan. It is at this point that I usually guard myself, as this introduction often leads into a story about how difficult it is to pay school fees and how she’s looking for a sponsor and, being mzungu, naturally I am rich enough to support her. But my preparation was in vain. Mediatrice surprised me delightfully by asking if I have parents. I said I actually have three. It was the first time I have ever heard a Rwandese say I am rich because of who I have in my life.

On this same walk, a couple of little children yelled out, I as we passed. I changed my course and headed in their direction—and they bolted. We’re interesting from afar—so interesting its difficult to hold back a shout!—but up close, we scare many a child. (It doesn’t help that in years past, rumors circulated that mzungus ate children.) I crouched down and held out my hand and invited the older girl (about 5) to come and greet me. “Gwino nsuhuza,” in my most gentle voice. She crept over, slowly, slowly approached, lifted her little hand, crept, until her hand was two inches above mine. Then she darted back to her porch. I waited longer and an adult passing by encouraged her to come out again. And she overcame! I was so pleased. I shouted, with arms held high, “Murakoze, Imana! Murakoze!” Thank you, God! Thank you! I’m not sure she thought it as triumphant as Kris and I did, but we enjoyed ourselves.

We noticed the other day that it is the abnormality to see a woman between 25 and 35 years old without a child on her back. That’s a LOT OF BABIES in a country that’s having trouble feeding its population.

Many people are interested in our opinion of Obama. So far, everyone seems personally triumphant and excited that he won the presidency. One group of men in Kampala, sitting in the bed of a parked truck, hollered out to us, “Are you German or Obama?”

One day in Kigali, I was walking over the hill from Taylor and Megan’s house. “Over the hill” to me meant outside of mzungu-land and into the side streets of real Rwanda. I was looking for a tailor to fix my shoes. (Wait—would he be called a cobbler? No, that’s what you eat with peaches. Anyway…) The outside corner of my Keens have totally worn through the sole and the grey underneath is now being munched on by the pavement. The man cut into my shoe, jammed two or three thin strips of old tire inside, glued it all up, and sanded it down. Nearly-new shoes for less than $2! After he’d finished, I walked across the street to buy some much-desired fruit. I glanced over the stores and saw and amazingly clear rainbow arching over the valley below. A passing man made a comment and I asked him to teach me the Kinyarwanda word for rainbow. He told me several times and I just wasn’t getting it. He grabbed by bare left arm with two hands, placed his lips to my forearm, looked me right in the eye, and said loudly and slowly: UMUKOROROBYA! Each “r” rolled like thunder across my skin and I felt every syllable. I hope to never forget this word.

And lastly, for now, I will explain that sometimes I get really frustrated about not being able to blend in. I think it’s a part of my personality that I take pride in, being able to fit in and be comfortable in many diverse situations. Here, I am white and stereotyped and surrounded. One day, we stopped to get my back brake fixed (yes, again—no worries, as Kris has since found a thorough solution). We were instantly surrounded (yes, again—you’d think I’d get used to it). I felt scared and annoyed and claustrophobic. And I stopped looking people in the eye. To me, they were just a large encroaching mass of rudeness. Reaching down to push my bike to leave, I tapped the head of a child. This small girl in a ratty white dress looked up at me with such a beautiful smile—it stuck with me. I contemplated on this later in the day and realized that I’d forgotten each person in the crowd was an individual, each with a story and a question and a heart. I must remember this. And at times when we’re making a joke about people watching us [Ukora ici? Kureba abazungu? What are you doing? Just watching mzungus?], they will reply with a clear Turabukundu! We like you!

Back in the Saddle

18 March 2009

The original plan was to leave Kigali last Saturday, the 8th of March.  We were delayed, however, by a rather nasty headcold that layed me flat most of two days.  Late Sunday morning, with only a gurgly cough remaining, we left the comfort of Megan and Taylor’s house for the northwest corner and Ruhengeri town.

First stop was still in Kigali town at a bike shop to pump our tires and buy a mirror for Kris’ handlebars.  (I’d rather not know what’s going to hit me, but he’s more curious and technical.)  We took the first right turn, double-checked it was the road to Ruhengeri (yes, singular, the road), and promptly started climbing.  We rode a little more than three hours with, being generous, 20 minutes of downhill.  Up, up, up, up we climbed slowly, stopping many times for water and once for some munchies (peanut butter and honey on bread, avocado, and peanuts–yum!).

Around mid-afternoon, only 15k outside of Kigali, we hit a town called Shyorongi and, not wanting to push too far that first day (especially with all the fluid residing in my lungs), we  inquired about a room.  The first man said not for another 10k, which turned into 12k, which turned into 20k further with the last man.  But we had seen a sign for a Catholic church pointing off the road away from the shop we were discouraged in.  The parish in Rwaza (where the orphanage was in 2007) had a couple rooms, so we tried our luck.  UP we climbed further to the parish and, sweating and looking rather ragged I’m sure, we entered the parish gates and hoped.  A man named Emmanuel, a seminary intern, entertained us while we waited for Padiri (“Father”) to finish his meal.  At first a bit skeptical [why would two mzungus want to stay only 15k outside of the capital city?], Emmanuel turned into a delightful friend.  Padiri said yes, showed us to our room, and allowed us a wonderfully cold bucket bath and some rest time.  Just before nightfall, we wandered outside to play Frisbee at the “stadium” and Emmanuel found us there.  He and the other young priest, Jacques, are avid soccer players!  (And Padiri drives a motorcycle!)  We had a delicious meal with them, both in terms of food and company.  They explained that in Rwandan culture, visitors are a gift from God.

The next morning, we woke early to join them in mass and then breakfast.  Over bread and jam and tea, we told them our tentative biking plans.  “Ah!  You can’t!” was Emmanuel’s exclamation.  “You’ll be died!”  Jacques prepared a traditional medicine for me, to heal my cough: sucking down a raw egg.  Oh, dear Jesus.  I focused hard on the end goal and still gagged on the mucusy texture–not at all that much different to what I’d been coughing up.  You’re welcome.

Then we were off again.  Reaching the top of that first big hill, the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation” leapt into my mind.  I don’t even really know the hymn, but it was fitting and I belted it.  This day was quite a bit more equal in its MANY ups and MANY beautiful, glorious, delicious downs.  A little further than halfway, we rounded a corner and came upon the third structure we entered our first visit to Rwanda: the juice stop.  We rested there for lunch and for a couple of the hottest hours of the afternoon.  And we drank passion fruit juice.  (I italicized it to encourage its reading to be done with passion.)  Amazing.

We made it 42k to a town called Gakenke, in the shadow of Mont Kabuye.  There we began asking for a guest house and found Tantum bar and restaurant: a bunk bed room for 4000rwf (not quite $8) and a filling buffet meal for 1100rwf ($2).  Cold showers, early to bed, for early to rise.

Day three started with a trip back into Gakenke to find a bike mechanic.  Kris’ mirror had been slipping and proving useless the previous too days and we’d concocted a solution with an old rubber tube.  (These, by the way, are how we are strapping our bags to our racks–very Rwandan, very resourceful, very ingenious.)  It took a maximum of five minutes for the fix and we were amused that it took only two minutes to be surrounded by fifty curious onlookers.  We can’t decide if we’re really that interesting, or if there is nothing better to do, or if there is just nothing to do.

During the next 37k into Ruhengeri town, four big events took place.  First, I have officially named my bike: Granny Smith.  She is the color of an electrified green apple; she is made by Fuji; she rounds out the Miller/Johnson/Smith trifecta; and she’s feisty.  Maybe I’ll swear at her less when her gears jump going uphill if I just remind myself she’s old, she’s traveled a lot of miles, but she’s strong.  Second, we were passed by members of Team Rwanda!  They are a road bike racing team that, the day we met them, were riding from Butare to Ruhengeri: 210k!!  And back the next day!  Inspiring–watch out Tour de France!  Third, we ate lunch, read, and napped with no one watching us.  Fourth, on our last visit, we often saw bikers clinging to the back of a slow truck who was struggling uphill.  It became a goal to arrive up one of the thousand hills on someone else’s steam.  Today was our lucky day.  This fat oil truck puttsed past us and we took hold.  It was actually quite nerve-racking and tiring to hold on, but other drivers got a big kick out of it and my legs appreciated the rest.

As we reached closer to Ruhengeri, the landscape started looking familiar.  Rounding a bend, we saw the side road where we used to wait for a matatu back from the orphanage.  It was so joyous to recognize sights and know we were close to friends.  One last big hill into town and we sang triumphantly as we passed under the town sign.  We have reunited with our pal Dusi who is letting us stay at his home–more on this later.

Note for the concerned: my cough persisted for over a week, waking me up, and inviting me to gasp for air, so I decided to visit the clinic across the street from Dusi’s.  The doctor listened to my chest (on my request) and said, “Its not good.  Its not bad.”  1000rfw for the consulation, 1000rfw for the antibiotics.  Not quite $4, one week, and lots of ginger later, and I’m feeling quite healthy.