Wednesday, December 9, 2009

November 2, 2009: A Journey to Rwanda

When I walked onto the plane leaving for Rwanda I had every intension of updating the blog each evening, internet allowing. The journey to arrive in Rwanda was a long one but it was exciting and filled with new places and new people.
When the Softchoice Team arrived in Kigali it was late and Nick was there to meet us at the airport and with his welcoming face, we all felt a sigh of relief knowing we had finally arrived and we were only a bus ride away from Gashora. The team gathered their luggage and headed towards our transportation and that is where my real journey began..... My luggage did not arrive in Kigali with the other luggage and I was soon to learn how slow things moved in Africa. I waited patiently for what seemed like hours to report my missing luggage, they were in no hurry to get the paper worked completed and they took one person at a time patient asking questions and getting descriptions of our luggage (several other passengers were also missing luggage). I asked if I could complete the paperwork in order to speed the process up but I was just answered with a smile. This is where I learned the true definition of African time.
The next morning after gathering some supplies we left Kigali and headed out for our village, Gashora. My luggage, still nowhere to be found.
In Kigali the streets were crowded with cars driving recklessly in and out of traffic, motorcycles known as taxi’s whipping in and out and between cars, it was a hectic sight. We traveled a two lane highway which brought us to a dirt road which looked like something you would not want to take a take a car down, my first thought was that we were pulling off of the road for some reason but that was not the case, this bumpy primitive dirt road was the road to Gashora and this was a road leading to a journey that would change my life.
We passed homes that had dirt floors, no glass in windows and many without a front door and after leaving a city like Kigali with buildings and cars this came as a shock to me, it was as if we were taken back in time on this dirt road and it was on this dirt road that I decided that I would not use my cell or a computer to update anyone, no emails, no blog, I wanted to see what it was like to not have technology, no internet, no cell phone, I wanted to feel like the people of Gashora. I did not want to know what was going on outside of our village. Would I make it?
We arrived at our hotel in Gashora it was raining and muddy, they did not have paved roads. We settled in for the night and met for breakfast the next morning, which soon became a routine, breakfast at 6:00, lunch at 1:ish and dinner at 7:ish….it was all on African time. The 00ish…….. Equals (=) African time.
In Africa I learned that no one rushes, there is no urgency to get things done in record time. If your luggage has not arrived, it will be there when it gets there, no worries.
The hotel was powered by a generator so we only had electricity for a portion of the day; the generator was turned off during daylight hours and after 10:00pm each evening to conserve fuel. We were lucky our hotel had showers but in my building we did not have hot water and not once during my stay at the hotel in Gashora did I ever get a hot or warm shower, they were all cold. I learned to live with the cold showers and after a hot day of working they came to feel good to me and were always welcomed.
When I packed for the trip I remembered Nick saying “bring the things you need right away in your carry on, just in case your luggage gets lost”. The night before I left for Africa Nick’s comment stuck in my head and I re-packed my luggage at 10:30pm that evening allowing me a couple of changes of cloths, my work boots and gloves along with a jacket and a rain coat, no shampoo, no personal items except what I had in my purse. I was told that the Kenya airport would take all liquids including shampoo so they were packed in my checked luggage along with a piece of luggage that held the donations that I had collected. Packing a carry on with a few necessary items proved to be a good move on my part because my luggage arrived about 4-5 days after I arrived. I learned a lot about Africa during the “lost luggage event”.
My luggage was found by the airline after a few days and was delivered to a hotel in Kigali where we stayed the first night, which was about 1 ½ hours from where we were staying in Gashora. We had no way to pick up the luggage because we did not have a vehicle; we chose our method of transportation in Gashora to be a bicycle. I had no way to get my luggage; I was at the mercy of the hotel staff that might be making a trip to Gashora, hoping they would remember to bring my luggage to me. The first few days I wanted my luggage so bad, I was a little restless. I felt as though I needed my things and how could I survive without my hairdryer, my change of clothes, and my shampoo….my everything that was in that luggage. I felt we needed the donations, we needed to get them up to the school, there were things in that donation bag we needed.
After my second day working on the basketball court in Gashora I learned something, the people in Gashora that were working with us men, women and children were wearing the same clothes they had on the day before and I came to learn over the next 4-5 days that the majority of the adults were wearing the same cloths day after day and each of the children were wearing the same torn dirty clothing. Seeing people in the same cloths day after day I came to realize that they did not have many cloths and many of them just had the cloths that they were wearing yet they came to the job site everyday and worked. The people of Gashora were not going back to a hotel to a cold shower and washing their cloths out in a sink and laying them to dry on the porch of their room, they did not have running water, they did not have a couple of outfits to switch out and yet each adult and each child smiled each day as they worked by our side.
The lost luggage taught me how little one can get by with if needed and the truth is I did not open my luggage nor did I use anything out of it for the first few days after it arrived, it somehow seemed unimportant to me at this point.
In the village of Gashora we met many people the first day they were excited to meet our Softchoice team and they were excited for us to bring technology to Gashora as well as a basketball court and a volleyball court. We were welcomed with smiles and people wanting to sneak a touch of our white skin, the children were especially fascinated with us. They were all gentle in their touches and were even happier when they knew we did not mind them sneaking a touch of our skin.
In Gashora I was known as Momma and I earned this title by coddling and protecting the children as well as putting them to work on the basketball court. When we arrived to start work on the basketball court we started moving bricks, there were several children watching, most of which were little girls I approached the children and I was met with warm smiles and a little shyness as they met a stranger for the first time. After a short time I asked the children if they wanted to help of course they could not speak English but I handed them a brick and showed them where to put it and that proved to be a good move. The children were able to move small bricks and pieces of concrete where the adults moved the larger items this helped speed up the process of clearing out the debris so the ground could be leveled for the court. The first day we had at least 6 children that wanted to work and be a part of the new basketball court and they were very happy to help and smiling the whole time. The children were rewarded with a high-five when they moved the small pieces of concrete and this brought more children to the work site each day all who wanted to work for a high-five and a smile and a hug. At one time we had over 15 children taking part in making Gashora a better place and they were all a part of something that would forever change their village.
Some of the children went to school part of the day and they would come to the site to help after or before school and there were several children that did not go to school possibly because they could not afford a uniform or they had younger siblings that they needed to attend to while their parents worked in the fields but either way we had the same children show up to help everyday that we worked. We had many children that showed up to the site with a sibling tied to their back and one held by the hand, it was truly children watching children and they were doing a good job. I was surprised at the level of responsibility that the young children possessed, I guess this was a way of life in Gashora and a responsibility you have to take on, caring for your younger siblings at such a young age, no Nintendo Wii, no TV or computer.
As I arrived at the sight each day the children would come to me for a job and it was my responsibility to make sure they had something to do. When these children grow up I want them to look at the basketball court and say….I was a part of this, I helped build this.
Our Softchoice Team was not just making a basketball court for them we were making memories together, we were communicating although we did not speak the same language there was a chemistry between the Softchoice Team and the people of Gashora, a chemistry you had to see too understand.
I am sure the children and adults of Gashora will always remember the kind Softchoice employees who came to their village and built a recreation center and brought the internet to their school.
I had a nickname for the kids that worked with us every day and they came to know their nicknames and responded to them. We had a language barrier but the children seemed to understand me and they did what I asked of them. The children took direction and guidance and at one point Lama asked me how I was communicating with them and I said “I don’t know, I just tell them to do something and they do it”. We got a good laugh out of that comment. They worked for a high-five and a hug which was a small price to pay for all of their hard work.
I looked out for the children each day I made sure they were safe and that they were given bananas for lunch as well as water. Water was a precious commodity in Gashora and I would fill water bottles and have Chick make sure that the water was shared by all of the children. For children that had nothing sharing came easy for them and I am impressed with their ability to look out for each other.
On the Basketball job large rocks were being hammered into smaller pieces and shards of rock were flying through the air and we had one adult get cut by the flying shards. Nick took the injured adult to the health center to get stitches, this left me nervous, afraid that the children would get hurt so during this time I needed to keep them contained in an area away from the flying rock and as you can imagine with the language barrier I was not sure how I would accomplish this. I drew a line in the dirt in a safe area and told the children that they needed to stay behind the line and I accomplished this by using hand gestures as well as speaking English (which none of them understood). They soon came to learn that the line meant.... do not cross and they knew it was for their safety, they would play behind the line waiting for the time to pass so they could help. These children always wanted to help; they wanted to be a part of what was happening in their village.
I developed a relationship with a small girl who was about 6 or 7, I nicked named her Chick and she followed me everywhere and helped me every day. I also had Belly Girl, Buddy, Buddy 2 and hardworking girl and others that became my “Peeps” as Cate would call them. I looked forward to seeing them each day and working with them, helping them make a difference in their village. I knew getting attached to them would make leaving Gashora hard and it was. I was convinced that I needed to bring all of them home to live with me. I could give them so much more that they had in Gashora, were they orphans, and where were their parents?
After a week I learned that Chick, had a mother and a father I also found out that Belly Girl and Buddy 2 as well as Six Finger Girl (a small girl with 6 fingers) were all her siblings and the day we had the ceremony for the opening of the basketball court I saw Chick, Belly Girl, Six Finger Girl and Buddy 2 sitting with their father on a bench, they were all sitting close together with their arms around each other and I walked over and I kissed each kid on the cheek and I stood up and their father gave me a head nod as if to say thank you for making them a part of building the basketball court, this was my moment…….. Nick, you asked about my moment and this was my moment, this was the moment I could not share at the table the last night in Gashora with our team when you asked us all to share a moment, if I had shared this moment I would have cried and I did not want to cry over that moment, I wanted it to be between me and the kids father, a moment when no language was spoken just a simple nod and a smile said more than any language could have ever said.
We were in Gashora for 14 days and we completed a computer lab complete with internet, taught teachers how to use a computer and then taught the teachers how to teach their students to use a computer, not an easy task when most of them have never seen a computer and none of them have electricity in their homes.
We were thrown many hurdles setting up the computer lab and with the help of our trusted Lama we jumped each hurdle, made a new decision as a crisis popped up and together as a team we made it happen. We left our Softchoice logo painted on the wall in the computer lab; this will be a reminder to them of who brought so much to a small village.
What we accomplished in 14 days in Gashora will change the lives of hundreds people. When people ask why Africa, I now know the answer.
I want to thank each Softchoice employee who bought a T-shirt or made a donation or attended a fund raiser for Softchoice Cares to know that every dollar that we collected made a difference to a small village in Rwanda as well as computer labs and charities around North America but seeing firsthand what the donations accomplished is indescribable.
To everyone who is not a Softchoice employee who donated time, money and items to our cause everything was used and was appreciated more than you can ever imagine. You cannot imagine the look on their faces when they received a pair of tennis shoes, a soccer ball, or a bag for carrying items or a child getting a pair of brightly colored sunglasses or shoes, it was great!
As I look through my pictures of the trip I am reminded of an incredible group of Softchoice people who were chosen to go on this trip. I am also reminded of two wives who took their vacation time to come with their husbands and share in building a computer lab and a basketball court they are kind women and they were an asset to our team. I am homesick for Gashora its people, my peeps and my Softchoice Team. We worked very hard, we accomplished a lot and we will always remember being a part of something that will forever change so many lives. Maybe one day someone from Gashoria will work for Softchoice after all with our name on their computer lab wall how can they forget us!
I am also reminded of the one thing that I wanted to accomplish on this trip and that was to change one life. The one life I know I changed is the life of Chick we developed an instant bond. I took a small shy girl who did not speak the same language as I and turned her into someone who helped organize the children for work each day she became a little more assertive and less shy over our 14 days together, she developed o confidence when I put her in charge of the other children and they learned to listen to her. I am sure she will always remember me and my kindness and high-fives. I hope she grows up to be a successful working woman or whatever she wants to be, maybe a Softchoice employee.
What Chick will never know is that she changed my life more than I ever changed hers. I hope to go back to Gashora and you can bet I am going to find Chick, I am sure we will remember each other.

Vickie Zeis
DWC Volunteer Participant Rwanda
Softchoice Care September 2009

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