Category Archives: Africa

Sunday on Lake Kivu

A gorgeous freshwater lake, a calm day, sunshine, blue skies and a boat.  If you ask me, these are a perfect recipe for a relaxing weekend with friends!  Or so it would seem.

Our group was taking a break from a two week volunteer assignment.  We took a three hour drive from Kigali to Kibuye, one of the beautiful beach towns on Lake Kivu, for the weekend.  From the vantage point of the Bethanie Hotel, we had stunning views of the area.

Lake Kivu is a freshwater lake that separates Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  One of Africa’s Great Lakes (the 6th largest in Africa), Lake Kivu was formed by volcanic activity in the Albertine Rift.  You may also be interested in knowing that Lake Kivu is an “exploding lake”!  Huge amounts of trapped methane and carbon dioxide are suspected to be the cause of lake overturns  (that’s an eruption of dissolved carbon dioxide) about every 1,000 years.  A future overturn would be catastrophic to the 2 million people living in the lake basin.  Strategies to harness and utilize the vast amount of methane gas as a source of energy are continually being investigated.  Here are three interesting articles.

There are many islands on the lake and one of those – Napoleon Island – was our destination on this perfect Sunday back in December 2016.  We were ready to feel the breeze and set off without many expectations.  Our guide was really helpful but spoke limited English and kept telling us that we would see “a lot of birds”.  OK.  Fine.  Sounds good.

After a ride of maybe 30 minutes, we arrived on the island.  Our guide points up and says “we will go there”.  Um, what?  Where I come from, that’s a small mountain.  But OK.  We climbed uphill on a dirt path for about 45 minutes – it was hot and this was not how we intended to spend our “relaxing morning” but we trudged on.  And yes, the views from the top made it worthwhile!

Mind you, we had yet to see any birds…

After a short rest, we headed down in a different direction into the dense forest.  Our guide followed us and when he started clapping and whistling, we finally understood.  We were here not to see BIRDS but rather BATS.  And LOTS of them!!  You see, Napoleon Island is home to a colony of fruit bats.  🙂

The racket our guide was making woke them up from their daytime slumber and they started flying everywhere.  I mean hundreds if not thousands of bats.  We stood transfixed as they flew by so close that we could have easily touched them.

Pictures don’t really do it justice…

Some continued to hang from their trees, eyeing us as intruders and alternately ignoring us completely.  For all of the noise, they didn’t seem too bothered by us, really.

I’ve never been in such a strange, unique and unexpected circumstance!  But it was amazing.  We just stood there gawking – with our mouths closed, really, there was a lot of guano flying around.   Not entirely what we had expected from our “relaxing morning on the lake”.  Definitely much better. 🙂

 

Gorillas and Monkeys and Chimps (oh my!)

In December I had a chance to combine two of my favorite things – travel and volunteering!  I spent two weeks in Kigali working on the site where the headquarters of Grace Rwanda – a charity promoting literacy and education in Rwanda – are located.  After that, I was lucky enough to take a week long safari to see some of the wildlife of East Africa!

My first stop was Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda where I joined a small group of hikers in search of Golden Monkeys.  In conservation areas like this, visiting primates is nothing like going to a zoo – these animals are wild!  However, researchers have spent years habituating some of the populations to the presence of humans so it’s safe for small groups of visitors to encounter them in the forest.  The process is highly controlled – the group stays together and follows a guide, and you are allowed to stay in their presence for only 1 hour of each day.  We set off through the village and then encountered the Golden Monkeys first on an unused plot of farming land.  After about 20 minutes, they moved on to the forest and so did we.  You can see how they get their name – they are beautiful!

 

 

The following day we set out on a LONG drive for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.  Bwindi is home to over 300 Mountain Gorillas and has several family groups that are habituated to visitors.  These beautiful animals are endangered due to poaching and live only in Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC – they cannot survive in captivity so if you’ve seen a gorilla in a zoo, it was likely another gorilla species, probably the Lowland Gorilla.  The hike to find our family was no joke (it’s called the “impenetrable” forest for a reason!) but when we got there it was more than worth the effort.  This group has several juvenile members and they were very active during our 1 hour stay!

The last primates on our itinerary were the Chimpanzees of Kibale National Park, Uganda.  We arrived around 2pm and quickly got ready to go into the forest, hoping to catch the chimps while they were still feeding on the ground.  Once they go into trees for the night we would be out of luck!  We joined our guide and set off on our trek.  It wasn’t overly strenuous, but those chimps move fast!  There were several times when we were running through the forest to keep up. 🙂  These animals share more than 96% of our DNA and we had lots of opportunities to observe them up close, including one elder who clearly likes having his picture taken!

 

What a great week with our primate cousins.  It’s truly an experience you should not miss!  For action shots, check out my short YouTube videos of Golden Monkeys, Chimps and Gorillas.  Plan your own trip to see them in person soon!

Back in Rwanda

I’m back from Rwanda! It was 2 ½ years between my last visits and so much has changed. The city is booming, with construction and development everywhere. Kigali retains it’s place as one of the cleanest cities in Africa, a result of many things, including the fact that the manufacture and use of plastic bags has been illegal in the country since 2008 and once per month all Rwandans participate in Umuganda, mandatory community service to keep their community clean and help their neighbors.

During my recent visit, I had such an awesome experience that I’m prompted to write this post. This is easily my most timely retelling EVER and a great way to reinitiate my blog postings after a long hiatus. 🙂  So what is it that brings me out of the writing drought? Nothing other than a reunion with a young girl and her father….

I met this girl (who I will not name to respect her privacy – if you know this family please also do not refer to them by name) in 2014 when I was volunteering in the small town of Gashora (Bugasera District, Eastern Province) Rwanda. Her dad was one of the construction workers on the project. Before he worked in construction he was in the army – as a morale officer! He doesn’t hold back when he’s happy. 🙂

His daughter used to come to the worksite with him and spend the day hanging out with our team. We didn’t speak the same language but who needs talking when gestures speak a thousand words? Even though (because?) she was extremely shy, we took to each other and she ended up sticking by my side throughout many of our working days. Well, that is, only when she wasn’t playing football!

I have trouble deciding between two favorite memories of her from that time. The first is when she really REALLY wanted to help us with our work. We were painting walls and windows and doors and after so many hours of the same repetitive action, I figured it couldn’t hurt to let her use my paintbrush for a while… She looked so proud as she carefully painted the door trim! The second memory is of when we were sitting down at a break and I caught her eying my work gloves and safety glasses. It was very cute! I knew that if she spoke English, or better yet if I knew more Kinyarwanda than just “hello”(muraho) and “good morning” (mwaramutse!) we’d be having a conversation. Anticipating her thoughts, I held out my gloves and she nodded eagerly.  She put on my safety glasses but what happened next was a surprise. She looked at my gloves but wasn’t sure how to proceed – in a country situated close to the equator with a temperate, tropical climate, she had never had a need to wear gloves and was confused about how to put them on.  We spent a few minutes with me demonstrating how to spread you fingers and slip them into the right slots before she finally got it.  They were twice the size of her hands, but she did it!

When I left Rwanda that February, I felt a strong pull to help her. In a country where the majority of the population is under the age of 20 yet less than 40% have a beyond-primary school education, there is a clear need to support the education of young people. I saw her potential and knew that life was a struggle for her family. The problem was just finding the right way to help.

After some hit-and-miss attempts, I connected with Africa New Life – an organization founded and run by Rwandans while operating in the US out of Portland, OR. They provide sponsorship opportunities for over 7,000 children in several communities around Rwanda, opening up opportunities for education and community. My little friend was vetted and accepted into their program, yippee! She now receives support for school tuition, fees, and materials, participates in monthly programs with other sponsored children, receives medical care when needed and more. I hope her life has changed for the better. I know mine has.

So that brings us to my visit – after 2.5 years, I got a chance to see her once again! First I went to check out the Africa New Life facility in Kigali – the “Dream Center”. It is an oasis in the city and although there were no children there at the time of my visit, I could picture it on a busy Center day. There are many buildings on the grounds including a sponsorship office, a facility for training women who previously worked on the streets (learning to sew or enrolling in beauty school), a theological college with the largest theological library in Rwanda (approximately 20,000 books are available!), a day care center, some administrative buildings and (in progress) a new medical center!

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While at the center, we picked up some gifts to deliver to her and her father. You may now be thinking of toys or a bike or other things that any American 12 year old would enjoy. But this is not America. Our most important gifts to her were those of nourishment – in the form of a 25 kg sack of rice, a 25 kg sack of corn flour, cooking oil and other related staples. I did bring along other gifts that were a little bit more “fun”…a backpack filled with pencils, paper, a coloring book, a dress and several pairs of socks. It’s all about perspective.

At last we were on our way to our visit. I had some difficult conversations before we got there about how tough her life can be. But all we can do is try our best to help and provide unwavering support. When things are difficult is the time to dig in and stand your ground.

We arrived in her community and prepared to walk through narrow, winding passageways to reach her home. How nice it was to be greeted by them both! Huge smiles all around. We reached their home and sat down to visit for a while, inquiring about each others lives and families while sharing smiles. I got such a big hug with my delivery of their gifts.

She has not become any less shy but I could see joy in her eyes. Her father was also excited to give me updates on his life. He recently completed his certificate in tailoring and now works regularly as a part of a local sewing cooperative. This is definitely a huge change from construction worker or morale officer, but it means a steady income and an increased capacity to care for his family. Who wouldn’t be proud of that?

When the time came to say goodbye, it was bittersweet. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to make this visit and hope that the day was as happy for them as it was for me. I am grateful to Africa New Life for the wonderful work that they do and can only hope to hear soon of my friend’s next scholastic achievements. The road may not be easy and the path may not be straight, but with persistence anything is possible.

Best of luck to you my friends. I hope we meet again soon.

Kigali, Rwanda (December 2016)

In December, our team worked on a project with Grace Rwanda, sponsored by Developing World Connections.  We made over 2,500 cinder blocks, installed a new library, built a guard house and had countless adventures!  Thanks to a great, flexible and motivated group of volunteers who made this trip a success.

Building Educational or Community Facilities

Grace Rwanda has initiated and completed several successful sustainable community development and literacy projects since their founding in 2009. To date, they’ve built eight new classrooms for Rwinkwavu School in the Kayonza District, plus 16 latrines, a kitchen and a garden with livestock. The multi-year project was completed in 2012 and serves 1,500 students.

Volunteers on this trip were tasked construction work on one hectare of land at the site of Grace Rwanda’s headquarters on Gisozi Hill, five minutes from the Kigali National Genocide Memorial. The project will take several years and stages, and is currently at the point of having the architectural site drafts finalized.  When complete, the site will include a community hall for training librarians and promoting education and social enterprise, and ecolodge for volunteers and staff as well as offices for Grace Rwanda.

In 2011, Grace Rwanda created six mini-libraries of 500 books and 250 dictionaries in rural Rwandan schools, providing more than 3,000 children access to books. In 2013, Grace Rwanda created a community library in a youth centre in Muhanga, the first of 21 planned regional youth libraries.  Grace Rwanda’s priority is to supply books to youth in the Muhanga District.  Muhanga of Rwanda is a rural, agricultural district of 350,000 citizens including 87,000 students. Resources and books are scarce.  Three times a year, Grace Rwanda distributes books, installs new libraries and checks in on past projects.

About Rwanda

Rwanda is a tiny country in the heart of Africa, fractionally south of the equator. The population of Rwanda is 10 million people – the densest population in continental Africa. The vast majority of Rwandans engage in subsistence agriculture. Rwanda is  beautiful, lush, fertile and hilly – it is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills.

The Joy of Coloring

Coloring and drawing are some of the first ways children express themselves. It’s fun, easy, and even if initial attempts are not much more than scribbling, there is no denying that creativity and imagination are developing! You can find all kinds of articles and charts about when your child should start coloring if that’s your thing….   And of course even in such a seemingly simple pleasure there can be controversy about the importance and benefits of this activity.

But really….isn’t it just fun?

Lately, even adults have gotten in on the act.  Adult coloring books were one of the “it” gifts for Christmas 2015 and the #grownupcoloring hastag is popular on lots of social media outlets (Pinterest , Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr,  and more).  Adult coloring centers are opening at libraries and many workplaces offer coloring stations in their break areas.  I even was seated next to a passenger on a recent flight who was getting in on the action.IMG_4864Adult coloring has been touted as a stress reliever but of course this comes with more controversy… “Are adult coloring books the stress relief tool they’re hyped up to be?” You can decide for yourself. But I digress.

On a recent volunteer trip to Zambia with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program, I witnessed the joy of coloring first hand. During my stay I spent one week living with 13 other volunteers in a very poor (by monetary standards only!) rural community.  The children were naturally curious about the foreigners who were visiting for the week and our house was a mob scene every day – in the best of ways. 🙂  We were escorted to and from meals and work by hoardes of children who wanted nothing more than to hold our hands and practice their English.  And each night when we came home, there were many curious eyes watching our every move.

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One night, we had a surprise for them – coloring books! We brought them out and immediately the joyful ball tossing, jump roping, chasing and laughing stopped. Silence descended on us all and eager eyes were glued to the prize.

Because of the large number of kids, we needed a system. We literally drew a line in the sand in our yard and asked them all to line up, which they did quickly and efficiently .:-)

IMG_6387Next they were asked to choose a “Spiderman” or “Animal” and one coloring book page was given to each child.  Nobody ran off.  Still standing perfectly still in line…  A few milled planks were in the yard and served as a table for the kids. We distributed a few crayons and let them have at it!

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IMG_6390The result was a bunch of happy kids as well as a group of amazed adults. I guess coloring really is for everyone. 🙂

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