Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Get Over Yourself Mzungu

There is this very strange phenomenon I have noticed among white people while working in Rwanda and Kenya (more Rwanda than Kenya).  At first, I thought it was just me.  I’m not a super “engager” type of person.  I do not give off warm, fuzzy vibes.  I’m more a focused, intense person.  But then a volunteer last year came in the office after walking to the compound and said, “What is up with white people in Africa?”  This volunteer is a warm, fuzzy person, non-threatening, non-intimidating mature woman.  It happened to her.  It has happened to other friends of mine working in Rwanda, white friends.  And, it has happened to Mr. AM, the nicest, most engaging person I know.

I am going to use White and Black because that is simply a statement of fact.  I am called Mzungu in Rwanda.  Although the word has a more interesting history, today it means “white skin”.

I am white.  I grew up in Kansas, the white bread capital of the US, or so it seemed amongst my 651 strong graduating class, 648 white/3 black.  Diverse wasn’t a word used to describe my Kansas City suburb in 1984.

Today in Rwanda those tables are turned.

When you are walking down the street and you see another white person, being white yourself, the natural tendency is to make eye contact and say, “Hello”.   Sometimes I think to myself, are they American?  Are they from Europe?  Again, it’s not a race thing, it just is.  We gravitate to our natural comfort and cultural zones.  We are human.

But there it is, the glance away, the avoidance of eye contact.  Not saying hello.  You say hello and they mumble or completely ignore you.  What is this?  I get more love from saying “Muraho” (hello) to the random Rwandan walking down the street on their way to market or town.

Some of us long term expats have a few theories.  It has been written about on expat websites.

One of my theories is a hierarchy of assistance, an importance scale if you will on whom or which organization saves Rwanda (insert any other African country) the best. 

First, let me set the record straight.  Rwanda doesn’t need “saving”.  It surely does not need a white person thinking they know best about “saving” Rwanda or Rwandan children, villages, widows or orphans.  Rwandans actually do know what is best for them based on their culture.  This is a country that rebuilt after a genocide, yes, with some much needed assistance to get back on its feet, but now it is one of the most progressive, safe and advancing countries on the continent.  Does it have problems?  Yes, like every other country in the world.  Could the people use assistance on some things?  Yes, just like poverty stricken Americans need help; education, housing, access to good medical care. 

You, Mzungu, working at an orphanage is no more or less important than our coaches and staff working with the national cycling team.  In fact, if you are not here for the long term (and long term to us is measured in years), your effect is minimal despite what you believe.

Learn to be polite and say hello.  Perhaps you could learn something from our years of experience in country.  Perhaps I could have a fresh perspective on an old frustration.

The other theory I have, and the one that most disturbs me and makes me want to smack you upside the head white person, is the theory….It’s all about YOUR experience masked in doing good for Rwanda (insert any other African country).

Don’t believe me?…read on…EAW with the village children photos.

I do not do selfies.  I personally hate to have my photo taken.  Most photos of me exist because someone captured me doing what I love most, working for this team.

My favorite photo is one from the National Championships in 2013.  I remember that moment like it was yesterday.  I remember what I was saying to Janvier.  I am grateful this moment was captured.


Here is what I think….if you spend 2 weeks in Rwanda and a significant portion of time is spent taking photos of you with child, village, group, working, etc., then blasting over to the Muhubura Hotel for internet to upload, then it’s about you and not about the work you do.  Period.

One volunteer insisted on taking photos of herself in a bikini with the team, the team holding her, her holding our guard’s night stick etc.  Guess where she is?  Not here.

A few days ago I was riding my mountain bike up a dirt road just having left a small village.  I was approaching the tarmac.  Coming down the dirt road there they were; the Mzungu entourage.  Five of them, sadly, classically American (overweight and shockingly inappropriately dressed), cameras around their neck and a swarm of village children gathering around them.  Mr. AM was in front of me.  I see him nod and say hello.  I smile and say hello….there it is, the glance away, the self important unacknowledgement of another white person.  Do you fear by acknowleding me your experience in Rwanda might be less African?  Or are you simply rude?  Did you fear I might call you out on your hootchie mama shorts grossly out of place in this conservative culture?  Would it lessen your experience to acknowledge that you are NOT the only white person in Rwanda?  What gives Mzungu?

Perhaps it is just the years under my belt living abroad.  It could be I was the same way in the beginning.  Something changes after year 1, 2 and beyond.  I realize every day how little I know about the Rwandan culture and how much I need to learn, adapt and give up to continue working with this team. 


I do not save these riders, their families, their communities or this country.  I simply open a few doors into the world of professional cycling, training Rwandans to do everything in the process to do it on their own.  That’s it.  That’s my job.  My greatest moment during the past 5+ years was Bona winning the stage at the Tour of Amissa Bongo (Gabon) last January.  And I wasn’t even there.  He won with a Rwandan Director Sportif, a Rwandan mechanic and a Rwandan soigneur.  Not a mzungu in the bunch.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

True LOVE

True Love

Written on August 10, 2014…

Recently I received a hand written letter from a volunteer who had spent a couple of months with Team Rwanda.  In five years, this is the first letter I have received, a letter that will remain in my journal to be read and reread during the low points of my life in Rwanda.  This letter will be a ragged piece of tissue paper in the next few years.

The letter spoke of love and happiness.  This woman gave as much love as she received in return. 

“…love comes in all forms and produces the same effect of warmth, gratitude and inspiration.”

On Wednesday evening I was on another Brussels flight out of Kigali heading back to the US.  As I opened the inflight magazine there they were, the boys of Team Rwanda.  As I stared at the photo I felt to the core of my soul….love.  I became all verklempt, sniffling and trying to hold back my leaky eyes.  I did not want to leave. Yes, me, the one who does not have a “heart for Rwanda”, the one who has pretty much given up cycling because I cannot take the hassle on the roads anymore, me, the one who sometimes is so angry and frustrated I want to run screaming from this country. 

That’s the funny thing about love; you often end up in places you never thought you’d be because of love. 

I never had the normal life, the husband (make that two), children or job.  I tried the traditional job route once.  I was miserable and I was miserable to others.  I didn’t have children because frankly, I’m just not a fan, especially a fan of the bald, drooling, crying babies. 

People used to tell me I would never really know love until I had a child.  They were wrong. 

This morning I woke up at 3:00am to head to the airport again, this time heading from Boston to Vegas.  I saw I had a message on Facebook.  It was Janvier.  Yesterday, Janvier, who is currently in the US racing and training with a good friend of ours, Scott Nydam, won a local race in New Mexico.  It wasn’t a big race, in the grand scheme of professional cycling, it was a blip…..a blip he won.  Janvier became the first Rwandan to ever win a professional race in the US.  I had spoken to Janvier the night before and he was so happy.  He called to give me his new US cell number.  After the call I sent him a short message on FB, “GREAT job today.  We are so proud of you!”

This morning I read Janvier’s message….

Thanks you Mukecuru every thing is bacouse you if you're not in Rwanda I can never now USA, Thanks lots you and coach to send me here I'm very happy because
You and Jock!!!

Recently I read a devotional called the Trademark of a True Christian.  Yes, I love the baby Jesus more now too….

“One of the most important facets of love is unselfishness, which is characterized in Romans 12:16 as the willingness to adapt and adjust to the needs and desires of others.  People who have grasped the meaning of this Scripture and applied it in their lives have learned what it means to be reduced to love.  They are not selfish.  They have learned to be adaptable and to adjust to others.  On the other hand, people who think more highly of themselves then they should find it difficult to adjust to others…..They selfishly expect others to adjust to them, but they are often unable to accommodate others without becoming angry or upset.”

Everything I do I do for this team.  To see Janvier and Valens sitting in 1st and 2nd at the Commonwealth Games ITT in the first group, to hear Bona’s voice on the phone from France where he rides for a new team, to welcome Gasore home from Scotland and seeing him holding his little boy and loving his family to hear Jonathan praying for his Tanto and Mukecuru and thanking God for guacamole.  For all of these moments I will happily give up comfort, convenience and money.  As I see people go through the motions of their lives, telling me they “wish” this, that and the other always selfishly holding on to the life they think they need instead of selflessly pursuing they life they want I wish they could live a day in my shoes.  95% of that day would feel like you’re beating your head against a concrete wall, the other 5% would be filled with a sense of hope that things are better that we are making a difference.  I live for the 5% of my day.

The ironic cliché is the more you give you get.   It just might not be in the ways you expect.

The greatest compliment I have received besides being a force to be “reckoned with”, is that my selflessness does not go unnoticed although I do not wish it to be noticed.  If I can lead a life that inspires others than I will have had a good run of decent days.

I never set out to inspire or influence a group of Rwandan cyclists, a team or a country.  I just fell in love with a group of young men who have become like sons to me and who I would gladly give up consistent water, electricity and quality of life for over and over again. 

I know this volunteer is forever changed and is a part of our family and feels the love from all of us even though the thousands of miles from Rwanda separate us.  We all hope she follows her selfless heart and returns to continue the work she has started and continue the impact and inspiration she has planted.
 






Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Water...It Should be so SIMPLE

6 minutes and 30 seconds to fill a 5 liter jug of water...on an average day

20 five liter jugs every day during camp

130 minutes each day filling water from the single water filter we have...in my house

2 hrs and 10 minutes

Walking back and forth from the water filter to the kitchen to the garage -- At least an hour

Monday thru Friday 15 hours....15 hours just to drink a glass of water

Every day for the past two weeks the city water shuts off between 6 and 7 am.  Walk to the shut off, check for the city water, close off city water, open the valve for the 5,000 liter tank perched high above the property.  Pressure, the higher the tank the better the pressure.  The pressure is still not strong enough in the tank to properly run the water filter.  It filters out most but not all of the bad heebie jeebies naked to the human eye.  Will this time be the time I get sick? as I put the bottle of water to my lips.

Hourly checks on the city water to see if it has returned.  The longer it is out, the more precarious our supply in the tank.  Should the tank run dry we start hauling water from the lower tanks in jerry cans to our houses.  We start boiling water.  I did that last week.

11-15 riders, 7-9 staff, animals, gardens, pump track, laundry...lots and lots of laundry all needing a steady supply of water.

When will the city water come back on?  Will the pressure be strong enough to pump it up the pipe into the tank?  The top open tank sits high above the compound.  Does the opening invite birds to deposit their most recent meal?  What could possibly have settled in that tank?
The tank at the top of the property
I prefer not to go there.

I have had Typhoid Fever.  Typhoid....a disease which comes via poor hygiene and sanitation.  Poop in the water.  There is a vaccine for it, albeit 60% effective.  I was at the end of my two years, the time period where you are 60% protected.  It was the worst feeling couple of weeks in my 48 years on the planet.

Cristina, our Canadian English teaching volunteer, asked, "How many hours a week to we deal with water?"

Apparently a minimum of 15 hours.

The double whammy has been the days when we have no water AND no electricity.  Thanks to a generator we're still not sure how we are paying for, we at least have electricity.....for a couple of hours.  Last Friday the electricity was off from 8:30am until early evening.  We ran the generator for two hours just do do all the sheets from the 15 beds the riders occupied during the week.

2 hours of generator time = $60+ in fuel

$60 to do laundry

The last two weeks of camp my days have been consumed by turning on the generator, turning off the generator, filling the tank, turning on the city water, filling bottle after bottle after bottle of semi filtered water.

In between all of that...I try to do my job....getting visas and passports for Rwandan cyclists (another blog for another time) and trying desperately to find money to make all this craziness run.

I am exhausted....completely and utterly spent.

And yet, I have it easy.  I have a generator and a back up tank of water....that's the irony.

Please help us provide clean, safe, consistent water to our team and staff.  Every little bit helps!