Sunday, June 28, 2009

Here's to the Friends We Love, Here's to the Friends Who Love Us!

One of my biggest fears when I decided to leave Las Vegas to pursue life in Rwanda was leaving all my friends behind and making new friends in Rwanda. I had no idea what to expect when I landed in Kigali almost ten weeks ago. I did know what I was leaving behind, an eclectic mix of friends, mostly cyclists, who have been my only sense of community in the six years I have lived in the very transient and isolated landscape that is Las Vegas. They are my friends who have supported me, loved me and encouraged me. They have supported the spirit of Project and Team Rwanda with their energy, enthusiasm and money. I am blessed to be a Las Vegas cyclist.

I have heard that if at the end of your life you had five very good friends, relationships that transcended all the life events of each person you would be fortunate. I am beyond fortunate. Will the friendships I have formed so quickly and so strongly while in Rwanda transcend the distance that will inevitably separate all of us? The lives we choose to live abroad impact our loved ones at home and impact the new relationships we forge while planting our feet for a couple of months in a foreign land. Will Johnny Umuzungu remember his counterpart, Blondie after the word Umuzungu is a faint memory?

I remember the first day I met the infamous Johnny Muzungu, a big blonde teddy bear of a guy from the Midwest. I was at our local hangout having drinks with another friend and he sees Johnny walking into the hotel. He waves him over and introduces me to him. “You’re Johnny Muzungu!”, I practically screamed as I shook his hand. Johnny Muzungu is a legend in these parts. He’s big, blonde, hysterically funny, easy going and so good to the Rwandan’s, whose lives he improves every day. Everyone knows Johnny Muzungu.

His American name is John Huston. He works for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project and works mostly with cows and livestock in Rwanda. He lives two houses away from me around the corner and has a TV and a large collection of DVDs, a priceless commodity in Rwanda.
One night while drinking at the Murhabura, I became “Blondie Muzungu” and our friendship was sealed. We are quite the sight in this small town in the Virunga mountains, tall, big and blonde, both of us with so much passion to help the people of Rwanda that it often takes a deep personal toll.

Friday night I went to Johnny’s for movies and popcorn. I had just spent almost a week in Kigali and I was exhausted. I just wanted to chill. I popped some popcorn, cracked open a Coke Zero (still can’t find real American Diet Coke) and plunked down on the janky foam cushioned, wooden Rwandan couch. Johnny was across the coffee table from me on the same janky foam cushioned, wooden couch. Rwandan’s do not know furniture.

After watching three episodes of Always Sunny in Philadelphia, he broke out the chocolate a girl from the US had sent to him in a care package this week. You could tell this girl means a lot to him and it wasn’t just because she sent chocolate. You could see it in his face. Love from home is sweet yet sad. It bolsters your spirit while at the same time reminding you of who you have left behind in pursuit of this life.
Two episodes later, covered in a blanket I made him grab off his bed, I am sound asleep on the JFCWRC (Janky Foam Cushioned Wooden Rwandan Couch). Can I tell you how much it felt like home? For those couple of hours, I felt like I was in Las Vegas, chilling on my couch just doing normal American activities except for the wood from the JFCWRC digging into my hip. I looked across the table to see Johnny asleep on his JFCWRC.

When I was leaving we started talking about the past week. I am not doing a good job anymore of hiding my emotions, something that Is difficult for me to reconcile myself to. The gap between really good days and really bad days is infinitesimal. I talked to him about the isolation I had experienced with someone and the uncertainty of the foundation on which I stand. Johnny and I are very similar. Maybe it’s the Midwestern work ethic gene we both carry. We both are passionate about what we do, we work extremely hard, get results but sometimes forget to step back and realize all the good we have accomplished as we forge on to the next result.

Here’s to Johnny Muzungu!

Last night, I got home after working the entire day and grabbed my bottle of expensively cheap nasty wine to have a glass while making dinner only to find that I had no cork screw. The travesty! So I called Johnny and luckily he was home so off around the corner to his house and the key to unlock my relaxation elixir.

When I walked in the door I knew something was wrong.
Johnny’s cousin’s wife, a young woman in her 30’s with three kids, had died. She had a cold, took some cold medicine on Thursday, went to bed and never woke up. She had been in a coma and they had tried to relieve the pressure in her brain but it was too late. Johnny’s cousin had to pull the plug. Johnny’s family is small and very close. The gravity of the grief was palpable. The red eyes, the empty bottles of sprite, coke and gin littering the table indications of the extreme sadness that overtook his world. Adding to the sadness, is the reality that Johnny cannot be there. Leaving Rwanda is difficult on a well planned trip with weeks and months to prepare. Leaving Rwanda on a day’s notice, near impossible.

We all know in the back of our minds that having tragedy strike at home is a reality. It is life, people become sick, our loved ones pass away, sometimes suddenly. Our unspoken truth of the situation is we all know there is a possibility we will not make it back in time. That is difficult to accept. The people at home are the ones who support us with their love and encouragement and even their money. They make our dreams a reality and when something happens to those friends or family members, we may not be able to be there to honor their lives, the lives that made pursuing our dreams possible. That reality brings a deep sadness. I pray every day to keep my friends and family safe back home. I pray for the families and friends of those here who I have grown to know and love. I pray to God to comfort Johnny in his grief.

Johnny said to me last night as I was getting ready to leave, “Kim, don’t forget to enjoy the moments and look at everything you’ve done here. If I can give you any advice, since we’re a lot alike, take time to list the things you want to do in the morning and then make a list of things you accomplished at the end of the day. Do this for a week and at the end of that week look back and take time to look at all you’ve done. You will see how much of a difference you make.” That is why Johnny is here. He is far from the ones he loves dealing with the incredible sadness of not being able to be home when that’s the only place he wants to be at this moment.

Here’s to the Friends we LOVE…..

Here’s to the Friends who LOVE us….

Friday, June 26, 2009

This is My WHY....

Yesterday afternoon I stood on the side of a building in Rukara in the Eastern Province of Rwanda and cried. They were tears I could not stop, tears I could not hide. They were the tears of your childhood when you cry so hard you can't breathe. Every emotion I could possibly feel at that given moment came rushing out through my tears. Around the corner from hundreds of people I released the struggles, fights, frustrations and pure simple joy. Crying for me is not a typical outlet of emotion but for some reason, Africa, Rwanda has brought the emotions I seek to control to the surface daily. When you face your true "WHY" for living, knowing that God has put you exactly where you need to be it is a powerful moment.

I have been in Rwanda for a little over nine weeks. In that short time span I have experienced more than I thought possible. I left my friends and family and all the comforts of my very nice, convenient life in Las Vegas. I stepped off the plane nine weeks ago in Kigali having never met the people I was to work and live with. I have made new friends, amazing new friends. I experienced the death of one of those friends. I have had two friends leave the country...leaving is one of the hazards of relationships in Rwanda. We develop an amazing closeness very quickly only to separate entirely too soon. I have battled the government of Rwanda and learned to navigate the mind field of bureaucracy. I have networked and added my centers of influence to help me continue progressing forward in the quest for NGO renewal. The only person who has been here in Rwanda working for Project/Team Rwanda left five weeks ago. I have been alone amidst a sea of people in this overcrowded country. I have been responsible for the financial care and physical well being of the Project Rwanda team, Sarah, Rebecca and Max, a 22 year old French mechanic who is every bit of 22! (Remember those days...think back...there was a reason I never had kids!). When you live with the people you work with on a daily basis, tensions can run high, especially with a group of people all very passionate about what they do. I ran support for a race for Team Rwanda which was a first. I have battled language/translation issues and had to learn to just be patient. Rwanda does not nor ever will run on America time. During this time, I forgot why I came here.

Until, yesterday....

Max and I left for Kigali Sunday evening so we could put together 50 bikes for a remarkable organization, Malaria No More. The ride to Kigali was worse than it has ever been. Not only was it dark, and we were in a run down big Diahatsu truck, but Max and I had fought earlier in the day, a nasty, personal attack fight. Jock was calling during the ride as we were supposed to pick up a bag at the Kigali airport from one of our mules. Of course we were an hour and a half late leaving, again, Rwandan time and we were making our mule wait. If I would have not emptied my bank account to keep things running the last five weeks I would have gotten on the next flight out of Kigali. For the first time, I just wanted to go home....I was done. Thank God for having no money!

My mule, Larry Dean Smith, was sent by God that night. There is no other explanation. I ran into the airport looking for a guy in a blue shirt and khaki pants. I was going to grab the bag and run, I was in no mood to be chit chatty! And then I met Larry. Either he was very perceptive or I was very obvious that I needed help. I was struggling. I sat down, got Max some food and Larry and I started talking. An unbelievably fascinating man with a life that I have only dreamed about living. He recharged me, energized me. He gave me hope. He asked for a ride to the Serena Hotel downtown. I threw Max in the back of the open bed truck and we headed to the hotel. Larry invited us for dinner and paid. How did he know I didn't have any money? How did he know I just needed someone to tell me without words that everything was going to be okay?

Monday morning Max and I were driven to the warehouse in our obnoxiously expensive and completely over the top truck. I stocked him up with water and went to do work in town with finalizing the NGO renewal. I was camped out at the Bourbon Cafe (the ex pat hang out) when Eben came to pick me up to get the NGO paperwork to the Department of Emigration. Eben.....Ebenezer Rulinda my Rwandan freight forwarder, friend, confidant, driver, translator and my right arm! Ebenezer's name means, "God has brought us this far." With my name, Kimberly, meaning "Warrior" we make a good combination. Eben reminds me of how far I've come when all I do is feel like I am waging a never ending battle.

We delivered the paperwork to the Department of Emigration late on Monday. We were force to rebind the original paperwork because it was a spiral bind not a thermal bind. I tell you I do not make this up. We went grab Max at the warehouse. Upon seeing this disaster of a truck rental Eben promptly sent the driver and truck back to Musanze and told me he would take care of us. Thank you God. I hugged him like he had just given me a home in Switzerland. We headed to Roger's house, aka our hotel in Kigali, to arrive home to no water. Max is a disaster. Sunburnt, filthy, sweaty and tired. He managed to get some cold water and cleaned up.

Tuesday morning, Eben picked us up and we headed back to the warehouse for day two of assembling bikes. After dropping Max, Eben and I headed to the Agricultural Expo where Project Rwanda had two bikes for hauling milk on display at the Land o' Lakes booth. It was so incredible to see the group of farmers around the bikes checking them out. One farmer came up and was talking to the others about the Project Rwanda bike he received two years ago. Again, Eben saves me by speaking seven languages. The farmer only speaks Kinyarwanda so Eben is telling me what he is saying. He is telling the farmers he used to use a truck but it was so expensive. He told them he only uses our bike now. He was my walking, living, breathing testimonial. What is so amazing that although I do not speak Kinyarwanda or French I can still sell a bike! It's not what you say it's how you say it and enthusiasm transverses language.

I was planning on leaving Wednesday and was just going to send the bikes ahead to the Rukara Health Center that evening with the shipping arrangements Eben had made. Thankfully I had money issues again....stay with me...the thankfully part will come. I did not have the $900 for shipping in francs and it need to be in RFW. It was supposed to be wired from the states, however, they couldn't do the conversion and get the money wired. After two days of work I was not going to let it end this way. Thankfully Max had sold four bikes to the guys at the OCIR warehouse that Tuesday afternoon and I had 400,000 RFW in cash. I scraped the last of my money, the ONLY money I had left in Rwanda in any account and we were able to come up with the 513,900 RFW for shipping. Wednesday night, Eben met the truck, loaded the bikes and personally rode with the truck to Rukara to make sure everything went smoothly. In the meantime, Rebecca hopped on a bus from Musanze to meet us so we could go out to Rukara in the morning.

Thursday morning we headed out to meet John Bridgeland from Malaria No More in Rukara about an hour drive east from Kigali. Once again Eben came to our rescue and drove us out to the health center.

This is where I cry....

We pulled up to a sea of green and yellow Project Rwanda bikes on the flowered lawn of the Rukara Health Center. I could not believe my eyes. There were 50 Rwandans all holding on to their bikes, the bikes they will be using to transport mosquito nets on behalf of Malaria No more. They were smiling and talking and pointing to things on their bikes. It was Christmas in June in Rwanda. As I walked across the dusty road to the lawn I came upon John Bridgeland, the man behind Malaria No More. The very first thing he says is, "You're Kim Coats! I saw you yesterday in a truck in Kigali. I knew it had to be you. There are not many blondes in Rwanda."

I walked around the corner of the fence and stepped into the crowd of Rwandans and bicycles. The smiling faces, the excitement, the pure joy of having a bike. All of a sudden everything came rushing to the surface. I was wearing dark sunglasses but I could not hide the tears that started streaming down my face. I kept trying to wipe them away without anyone noticing but they were too strong. I walked around the side of the building and for the first time since I've been here I was alone. You are NEVER alone in Rwanda. I sat on the step and cried. I sobbed. For all the struggles, we made this moment happen for these people. My struggles will never compare to the struggles these people endure every day. My struggles are inconveniences. Their struggles are life and death.

I cried for the life I am able to live here. I cried that I was strong enough or crazy enough to follow my dream. I cried because for the first time in a very long time I was at peace. This is my WHY.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

For Alex, It IS About the Bike

This weekend Max and I were the support team for the boys of Team Rwanda in the Tour of the Volcanoes. I drove the car and Max hung out the window watching for riders, cheering the boys on and doing the occasional jump and run to switch out a wheel and push the rider back into the race. This was my first race in Rwanda and my first time in a support role. I am usually the one racing. I had no idea what to expect so it was somewhat stressful yet exciting all wrapped up in one completely crazy weekend.

This is all I KNOW….It IS about the Bike!

Rwandans love their bicycles and they are passionate about the boys of Team Rwanda. There were several support vehicles in the race from the various clubs around Rwanda where these boys got their start. Every single one of the people in those cars were there to have just one piece of the success of the winning riders. Those riders offer them hope.

This ride was actually quite small and to me it appeared, not very well publicized, however, as the day wore on and we rode through Rwanda from Kigali to Kinigi the crowds in each small town grew. It was this wave of word of mouth that started cresting as we raced through the town I live, Musanze (Ruhengeri). The 12 kilometers to Kinigi, the home of Volcanoes National Park, looked like the top of Alpe d’Huez.

It IS about the Bike for a young man, Alex.

Alex showed up on Jock’s doorstep with another new rider the day before Jock was leaving for the U.S. Alex was brought by the guys already on the Team. He was riding an old Eddie Merkx, the frame held together with various welds and Rwandan ingenuity.

Of course, being Rwanda we did not have electricity that night so Jock could not test the two riders to see which one should receive a bike and ride in the Tour. We ate dinner that night at my house which did have electricity and I remember Jock telling me after dinner about Alex and his “story”. Everyone in Rwanda has a “story”. They are never good “stories”. They are stories shrouded by the reality of the destruction the Genocide inflicted on families fifteen years ago.

The next morning, still no electricity so Jock had Max get bikes for both boys. Alex got the Scott CR1 I had been riding. That was the last time I saw Alex until the race Saturday morning.

Alex speaks no English, no French only Kinyarwanda. He’s a quiet boy of eighteen who I had not seen smile once. He is an orphan, a genocide orphan. I do not know his current living situation all I know is that at the age of three his parents were murdered. Who found him? Who took him in? Who raised this young man? I understand his intensity and introspection if that is what it is. Perhaps it is mostly sadness. Perhaps it is hope. Perhaps it IS the bike that he knows will help him escape his past. Bicycles have a way of doing that for cyclists.

From the start, Alex rode with the main pack. I knew from the second I saw him ride he was special. Physically he is a cyclist, small, extremely strong, very lean and most importantly he has the intensity. He has the “it”.

All day as he rode, Max and I kept our eyes on Alex. When we got to Kinigi he was not with the first couple of riders, Abraham, Nyandwi, Obed but he was not far behind. As I pushed through the crowds to find him I came across the bike. It was propped up against the other bikes and the handlebar tape was shredded. Somewhere along the last 5k he had crashed. When I finally found him, standing there in his shredded cycling shorts, he was watching the other riders being surrounded by reporters and cameras and adoring fans. I came up to him and wanted to give him a big hug but for some reason I didn’t. I just handed him a towel, showing him I wanted him to wipe down for the next stage. Max fixed his handlebars, checked the bike and off he went on the next stage.

That night in Gisenyi I could not get the picture of his intensity out of my head. He wants to be a Team Rwanda member.

The next morning we head back to Kigali and again, Alex is at the front of the peloton. He stays there all the way until about 30k from Kigali when all of a sudden Max and I see him a couple of cars away standing on the side of the road. NO….this is NOT happening to him! He has a flat. We are out of wheels. The motorbike up ahead has a wheel and drives right past Alex. The kid just stood there not saying a word. He didn’t have to you could see it in his eyes. This was not going to end like this for him. Max jumps out of the car and I slam on the brakes and jump out SCREAMING at the motorbike driver. He speaks some English but it wouldn’t have matter. The crazy blonde Muzungu was SCREAMING at the top of her lungs and EVERYONE was staring. He turns around and Max grabs the wheel, swaps it out, Alex jumps on the bike and Max must have pushed him halfway up the hill. I pull up alongside Max, he jumps back in and we ride along this climb with Alex until we can spot the pack. Alex did not need to know English, we did not need to speak Kinyarwanda. At that moment in time, he knew that we were there for him.

The closer we got to Kigali the more Max and I watched Alex, now in the lead pack with Abraham, Nyandwi, Obed and Nicodem. All of a sudden, Obed is off the pack. Alex is now in the top four. As we drove through the narrow, unsecured streets of Kigali, Max is yelling at me in French something to the effect of stay on him. All I know is Max is yelling, Max wants this for Alex as much as I do. This orphan kid with his intense riding and his quiet demeanor has completely engulfed us.

As we approach the mob at the finish line we see the four cross and then I lose sight of Alex. We pull through the crowds and park. I jump out of the truck looking for the riders. I was looking for Alex. I see Abraham, the winner surrounded by fans and reporters. Next to him is Nyandwi, where is Alex? I push my way through the crowd and then I see him. All the limelight is focused on Abraham and Nyandwi the veterans. Here is this AMAZING kid who just rode the race of his life standing there by himself. I start running to him and throw my arms around him and hug him so TIGHT!!! I have tears in my eyes and I’m not letting go of his completely sweat soaked body. I kept saying over and over, “I’m so proud of you! I can’t wait to tell Jock all about YOU!” And then, he smiled. The biggest smile I have ever seen. He SMILED and I kept hugging him.

For Alex, It IS about the BIKE!!!!

At the awards ceremony they called up the first three, Abraham, Nyandwi and Nicodem, another fantastic young rider. Alex started to get up when they came for the top three and it about broke my heart to know he was so close to being on the podium. The race official motioned for him to sit down.

After the top three recognition, they brought up the rest of the top ten. The top ten all received a monetary award. Kiki was sitting in between Alex and I and as Alex sat down I just watched him. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He is so intense and solemn. He opens the envelop and just stops and looks down at all the money inside. It is probably a couple hundred dollars U.S., a complete fortune for Alex. He closes the envelop and just keeps staring down. He opens it and looks again. He runs his fingers across the money and he just stops. He doesn’t move. He just looks at it. Then he takes the money out of the envelop, looks up and puts it in his pocket. He just got paid to do something he absolutely loves. This is his future he’s staring at. This is his way to escape all the sadness life has dealt him….all because of a bike, all because Jock has worked with these boys, living in this incredibly tough place for almost three very difficult years developing this team, all because the people of Rwanda love their bikes and their cyclists, all because he loves to ride…

For Alex, It IS about the BIKE!!!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Rwandan Dinner Party

Yesterday Max, our French mechanic, and I headed back to Kigali in our still uninspected, illegal ghetto rental pick up to support Team Rwanda in the three stage, two day Tour of the Volcanoes race. I remember last summer watching the Tour de France and thinking, “How cool would it be to be in a support car at a major cycling race?” And, here I am!

We spent most of Friday running around Kigali getting all our last minute things done for the race. Max’s English is improving by the day and my French continues to be nonexistent, however, we have a way of communicating and for some bizarre reason we can actually understand one another. We were running from 6:00am on, well, Max slept until 10:00am, and by 6:30pm I was done. I had a scheduled SKYPE call with a guy in California interested in bringing 1,000 bikes into DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and it was 6:00pm when we finally got back to Roger’s. Roger is Mr. Land o’ Lakes here in Rwanda and our ALWAYS gracious host and crash pad in Kigali. When I left Musanze that morning I tried to take a shower….need I say more…so I drove my stinky ass to Kigali and was REALLY in need when I got to Roger’s. Well, being Rwanda, I had water but the pressure was too low to push the water through the hot water tank. Did you know you can wash your hair, body and shave your legs in 2 ½ minutes flat? Now that I was awake….on to a dinner party at Festus’s. Festus works for the Rwanda Cycling Federation and was having guests and race members at his home for a get together. I was more in the mood to go to bed then to a dinner party but I went anyway more out of obligation than actual want. I am SO GLAD I did!!! Rwanda NEVER ceases to surprise and amaze me.

My first Rwandan dinner party. There were eight Rwandans, two Americans from the US Embassy where Festus works, and Max and I. The other American girl, Jenny is from Sparta, Wisconsin, the same town my mom was born and raised in. How’s that for small world? We all sat outside on his patio drinking wine and cocktails and talking about cycling and the U.S. and Rwanda and listening to two men sing Rwandan songs to an acoustic guitar. Festus’s wife was an amazing cook! It was so nice to have something other than French fries or Pringles knock offs with my wine! The company was truly diverse. These are the times in Rwanda where I pinch myself to see if this really is my life. Near the end of dinner, Festus made a speech to his guests. He talked about his time with Richard and Jenny at the Embassy and the impact they had on him. They are heading back to the US in the next couple of weeks for reassignment. He took time to go around the table and say something about every guest. This was the first time Max or I had met Festus and he thanked us for working with Team Rwanda and for the work I do with Project Rwanda. I was thinking that in the US we tend to have a get together around a sporting event or other outside stimuli. Why can’t we just have 8 or 10 friends for dinner and actually talk to one another around a table? Why can’t we take the time to sit down over a home cooked meal and just get to know each other better? Why don’t we tell the people we care about how much they mean to us and they imprint they put on our lives? It was such an interesting and entertaining evening.

I truly believe that Americans can learn an important lesson that would go a long way to rebuilding the family. Turn off the television, the Nintendo, the computer, the other outside stimuli and just TALK. Take the time to know more about your kids, your friends, your family. I have not watched TV in eight weeks. It is NOT missed!

Here’s a fact…your kids will not die without the Nintendo, cell phone or television. It’s proven, they won’t and neither will you. I’ve written about it in prior blogs but I really firmly believe the television needs to just be removed. Nothing I do in Rwanda revolves around the latest TV show. Perhaps that’s why we get so much done in a day. Perhaps that’s why I feel I know people better. I love that we cook dinner together, pray together, eat together and talk about our day. It is one of my favorite unexpected treats living in Rwanda. It is something I will continue to embrace the rest of my life. Stop the “racket”, stop the “noise” and just LISTEN…you might find out something about the ones you love!

Friday, June 12, 2009

June 11, 1966 2:10am

43 years ago today I came into this world two weeks late, with a massive tuft of jet black hair and weighing close to 10 pounds! I like to think I was two weeks late because I was busy contemplating my life outside the womb. I've always been a thinker, a "contemplater". Perhaps I was already trying to figure out how I was going to make the most of my life even then. Or maybe I was just plain stubborn, which could be just as accurate!

Birthdays have always been a cause for celebration for me. I'm not a big fan of the major holidays. Christmas is just too commercialized and makes me sad. New Year's Eve is completely overrated and continues to set people up for failure. Does anyone actually remember Christ rose from the dead on Easter? And Valentine's Day, the ultimate Hallmark holiday scam!

But Birthdays....on that one day, at that moment of time, the world was forever altered by the emergence of YOU! The impact of our presence on the world for better or worse is forever imprinted on the planet and the lives you touch. That is why I celebrate...TRULY celebrate my birthday. For me, it's a time to look back and ask, is this world better or worse because I am here? Have I made a difference and was that difference positive?

That is why this 43rd birthday is so special. I did make the changes I needed to make to pursue a passionate life. There are no regrets. I have been a little quiet on the blog the past week, not for lack of things to share, but an overabundance of life that I am left with the challenge of what to share. My days are so full. I write down little things that make me laugh, make me sad, make me think while I'm running around and it literally fills pages every day.

Monday and Tuesday last week reduced me to tears. Tears of pure frustration. I had hit the wall so many times. I'm still battling renewing our NGO. On Friday last week, I was told as I was grabbing the last bus out of Kigali that the last piece of information we needed was not going to be processed because the Minister of Agriculture said farmers didn't need bicycles they needed cars/trucks to transport their goods. WHAT? First of all, I don't even have a car. They are very expensive and have to be shipped in from Dubai which generally takes 6-8 weeks. Then the price of fuel is a jaw dropping $8.02 a gallon. That would stop even the most hard core gas guzzling American in their tracks! Driver's licenses are given out only two or three times a year and are about $300USD. Then insurance, taxes, inspection....okay Mr. Out of Touch with Reality bureaurcrat, have you been knocking back the banana whiskey at lunch?

So that is what I had to "contemplate" on my two hour, stinky, death bus ride back to Musanze Friday night. I decided to rent a truck and go to Kigali Monday and Tuesday to figure out what exactly had gone down. I had a local man who has worked with Project Rwanda in the past handling the running around delivering paperwork for me. It was time I showed up in person.

I called in some favors. Roger, who works for Land o' Lakes in Rwanda, let me borrow his Rwandan accountant who had just completed their NGO renewal earlier in the year. My first stop, Department of Emmigration to make sure I had all the other paperwork correct. Shocker, no there's a new form that I must fill out. Great, give me the form....again! Then on to see the Minister Out of Touch with Reality. Luckily he met with us. I gave it my best subservient, aw shucks, performance and lo and behold, everything my runner had told me had been a mistake. So someone is not telling the truth, but at this point I don't care, just tell me what you need. He says I need a Letter of Recommendation from the RDB (Rwandan Development Board). Sweet....I KNOW people there!

By this time it's already close to 5:00pm so I drop off my "door kicker", Fatma and head back to Emmigration/Immigration to pick up Rebecca. She's been dealing all day with her issues on an exit Visa to be able to leave the country Tuesday to meet her fiance in Spain. She finally got her exit Visa after paying an additional 25,000 RFW to get out of Rwanda.

The more I thought about the RDB letter the more I realized this was probaby just another "pass off". I decided my first stop Tuesday morning would be with Emmigration to make sure they needed that document. On top of all this NGO fiasco, I am also having to coordinate a vehicle and pick up for the Tour of the Volcanoes race Max and I are sagging this weekend for the Team. How am I possibly going to pull this all off? Then it hit.....I was tired, driving around Kigali is so completely stressful. The truck I'm driving is making all sorts of noises and the tires look like racing slicks. I was staying at Roger's trying to SKYPE with Jock who is the only other person on the planet that can relate to this level of government frustration and life in Rwanda and his internet goes down. I lost it....I laid on my bed and cried. I wasn't homesick. I wasn't sad. I didn't want to go home and give up. I was frustrated and I was MAD! Why is the government making this so difficult? The success of the farmers in this country depends on me getting this renewal accomplished. If I fail THEY lose!! I cannot fail. I cannot let these farmers and other small business people down. I cannot let down the Board. I cannot let down Jock, who has been here battling to make this happen alone for the past two years.

Tuesday morning I wake up and walk out on Roger's front porch with my coffee and take in the amazing view of Kigali and see the morning mist rising up from the valley and I am renewed. I always wake up early because mornings always give me a sense of hope. It's the "Do Over" moment of the day.

So at the Department of Emmigration, with the ever evasive Godfrey, I am told that they do not need the Letter of Recommendation from the RDB but rather a Letter of Collaboration from the Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry. That's IT!!! You have got to be kidding me, right? Okay great.....put it in writing, put your name and cell number on it and I'm heading to the Minister of Commerce. This is typical Rwandan government behavior. Everyone is so afraid to step out and put their name on something for fear of retaliation. In the meantime they have created this gigantic mouse maze with no exit point. I don't know if it was the look of "Postal" in my eyes or if he was just tired of seeing me but I got him to put it in writing.

So, off to Roger's office to do the Letter of Collaboration request for MINICOM and then to the MINICOM offices. One thing positive with all this running around is I am beginning to know Kigali, a major city with not ONE actual street sign, like the back of my hand. I can navigate these streets, shift my ghetto truck, pass on the shoulder (that's what we do) and avoid running over the 13 mototaxis in my path like a pro. Of course, the Minister of MINICOM is not in and I have to schedule an appointment for next week. I just haven't spent quite enough time driving the Road of Death between Musanze and Kigali.

Update on Tuesday....

So why do I do this? Because if I don't, who will? Do I tell the farmers things got a little frustrating and I gave up? Those of you who really know me understand that is not an option for me.

So why do I do this? The frustrations are great but the rewards are greater. I have already begun accumulating a network of amazing people that are buying into my passion for Project Rwanda. I have people from all sides helping me. Roger, from Land o' Lakes, Jonathan Golden sending a letter to Bishop John to ask for his support in helping me. Euben, my first true Rwandan friend, my freight forwarder and man of great respect and many contacts helps me whenever I call. If I continue my passionate pursuit of bringing Project Rwanda to the next level, others will continue to be drawn to this pursuit. In the end we all win...especially the poorest of the poor who need our bikes.

So, it's now June 12th. I am officially 43. I live in Rwanda. I pursue my passion every day. I am blessed with a strong support of friends and family at home and am bolstered by the love and encouragement I get from my friends in Rwanda. My friendships here have developed quickly and are strong. That happens naturally because we all recognize how much we need each other.

43....did I ever think this is where I would be, doing this?'s exactly what I wanted when at the age of 13 I made a poster board of all my dreams and put it on my wall. One of those dreams was Africa. Never tell me you can't make your dreams come true!!! The bonus is while making your dreams come true you help other's dreams come true as well. That is what God had in mind when I entered this world. This is why I celebrate!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Biking Adventures of Blondie Muzungu

I grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb southwest of Kansas City. Back in the early 80’s it was the third wealthiest county in the United States. It was the modern day suburbia version of the Norman Rockwell life. It was clean, safe, an excellent public school system and white. There was no diversity. We were all a bunch of Wonder White Bread kids who never considered there was any other life beyond our mile radius of friends, pools and playgrounds.

Perhaps the only reason I felt that I was different within that group was due to economics, not race. I joke that I was the only “poor” kid living in Overland Park. I was different because my dad did not have a white collar job working in an office downtown. He was a forklift mechanic during the day and a drill rig mechanic at night. He worked two jobs for as long as I could remember. I did not have the trendiest clothes, the new car at 16 or the luxury of not having to work. The feeling of “different” in Kansas, pales in comparison to being one of the few people in a town where you could count the number of resident Muzungus (white person) on two hands.

For some Muzungus it’s unsettling. Our last mechanic Merlyn lasted one month and really, according to Jock, was ready to check out his first week. The week before I moved here I had a conversation with Merlyn after I found out he was stateside. He said he did not like being the center of attention walking down the street, people pointing, openly saying or even yelling “Muzungu”. He would not go to the market. He became a recluse. Merlyn is a big bald white guy.
Fortunately for me, although I grew up with very little to no diversity in my world, I had parents who brought me up to know we are really all the same. We just look a little different on the outside.

A week or two before I left Vegas, I had an appointment to have a final cut and color. I know…you all thought I was a natural Blonde! I had friends ask if I was going to color my hair dark so I would “fit” in better. Newsflash, I would still be white. I would rather be white and blonde than white and brunette. Either way my skin is still the same. I will always be “Muzungu”.

Kigali is the capital of Rwanda. This is where all Muzungus enter Rwanda. There are lots of Muzungus in Kigali. It is a fairly diverse city. Musanze, where I live, is not.

The very first ride I took the day I arrived here was an experience. Jock and I took the rode to Uganda. Two Muzungus on nice road bikes weaving through hundreds of people with baskets of water, food, and wood on their heads. We heard over and over, Muzungu, Muzungu. What was interesting though, is seeing the reaction on the Rwandan’s faces when they realized that not only was I Muzungu, but a Muzungu girl….ON A BIKE!!

Women do not ride bikes in Rwanda. I want to change that. Women need to ride bikes in Rwanda to empower them, to help them gain financial independence. But that’s for another blog….

I spent the next four weeks riding with Jock. Always the same thing….fascination. It’s an odd experience to be pedaling down the road, come upon a school with hundreds of children sitting on the lawn and when they spot you they all start running, sprinting to the road to get a close up of the Muzungus on bikes. I feel like I’m riding in the Tour de France every day. They run alongside you. Sometimes they want to practice their English. They will say, “Good Morning” no matter the time of day. Sometimes they hold out their hands and yell, “Give me Amafaranga!”. Give me Money! This does get old.

Women stare and point. Their eyes as wide as saucers. Most of them are holding tiny babies. They are so young themselves. When groups of women are together they will step off the road, whisper among themselves about the white girl in braids on a bike.
The road bikes are definitely easier to maneuver. You can always outrun the group if need be. On the mountain bikes, traveling through the countryside, it can be unsettling for some. Kids will run alongside you for literally kilometers. I always wonder, where they came from and where their family might be. They are so small, so young and they stay with you forever or until you reach the downhill side of the summit.

I have never felt nervous or scared. Some people I’ve ridden with get annoyed with the constant onslaught of children. They will sometimes touch you, but not often. The biggest threat is having one of them accidentally step into your path. I saw Jock hit a woman and child a couple of weeks ago. That is unnerving. I have had one child throw a rock at me but it’s been the only incident of unkindness or threat that I’ve had in more than 25 rides. I’ve had one wipe out on the mountain bike when I was turning back to find Jock and missed the corner, hit the curb and flew over the handlebars. Funny thing about that was the outburst of laughter around me. Rwandans have this odd trait that if they see you stumble, fall, wipe out on a bike they just stand and laugh. There’s no shock, no concern, no coming to your aid. They just laugh. It is quite odd. Perhaps it shows, the Muzungu is human, or just plain klutsy.

When we’re on the road, we generally pick up a cycling entourage. Men riding these circa 1970 Chinese bicycles that have been welded and pieced together a millions ways from Sunday. When they’re not carrying loads of potatoes or other vegetables, they are quite fast, which is a pathetic reality check to realize they are strong enough to bury you on your $3,000 carbon fiber road bike. It is quite demoralizing to be passed on a hill by one of these guys.

When I’m on the road and I tire of the crowds, I simply ride faster. That’s why I prefer the road most days. If I want to chat, which is not much unless they speak English, I let them ride along, if I don’t I work on my speed intervals!

So, last week, I was on my own for the first time. Braided, blondie Muzungu set off ALONE on the bike. I was nervous the first couple of kilometers. I had always had at least Jock by my side…well actually, several meters in front of me! Perhaps a little more depending on the day. Hey, cut me some slack he rode in the Tour de France and did RAAM twice. This is not your average club ride leader!

All I can say…pure cycling joy! I started down the road to Uganda, weaving in and out of traffic to get out of Musanze. I had been quite sick for the past couple of days and I needed to get out and on the bike. And then it started to sprinkle, then rain, then harder, then laughter at Blondie Muzungu riding in the rain. Frustrated, I turned to head back to the house. As I moved in the other direction the rain slowed. I decided to head west toward Gisenyi. This is the road that Straberg, a German company, has been working on since I arrived. It is a mountainous road with patches of pavement, small sections of gravel and serious construction equipment building up the side of the mountains to insert the road.

The more I rode, the happier I was. The scenery on this road is spectacular. Past the last section of construction and nearing the end of long climb alongside me comes Claude. Again, rickety old piece of crap Chinese bicycle, clanking up the hill. He says a hearty “Good Morning!” It’s 4:15 in the afternoon! And then he keeps speaking English. We exchange pleasantries. Then he asks what I am doing. When I tell him I’m just riding, it doesn’t register. Why? Because I want to. Where are you going? No where in particular. Why do you go nowhere? Because I’m out for a ride. But you ride to nowhere? Why? Riding for enjoyment is not a concept Claude is grasping at this point….I need to change the subject….

Claude is a 15 year old Rwandan boy. He doesn’t attend school because his family is too poor and he must work. He learned English when he was going to school. He is one of the better English speakers I’ve come across while riding. He is obviously a smart boy. Unfortunately, a smart boy with no future prospects, like so many in Rwanda.

Claude rides with me for about 15 minutes, shows me where he lives and then he’s gone. A couple more fist bumps with kids along the road and I turn back towards home. (We do the Howie Mandel fist bumps due to the prevalence of tuberculosis among the children. Hacking cough = TB = I’m going home to the US to spend 6 months in quarantine).

First ride on my own…

Yesterday, after spending all day Sunday working, I was ready for a FAST road ride to Uganda. I was feeling better finally and was ready to just get on the road. I told Rebecca and Sarah I would ride again later in the day on my mountain bike with them but that I had the need for speed.

Weave through Musanze, near miss with a moped taxi, hisses at the hordes of people stepping into my path and I’m on my way. I think I talked about the hissing in one my blogs. I am a GREAT hisser. You can hear my sharp hiss for meters. Seriously, you do not yell, “On your left.” Like they would understand the English anyway. You HISS, like a snake. The first time I did it I was so shocked how rude it felt. It is not rude, it’s just how they respond. I am going to be a completely out of touch rider in the states when I return.

About 8-10k into the ride I feel this rider come up on me. It’s not a Rwandan farmer biker, it’s too quiet. I’m focused on my cadence, my speed, the road, the goat on the side of the road who has broken away from his rope and has potential for ending up in my wheels, who is this person on my wheel?


Our night guard at Jock’s house, Alphonse “Rambo” Museruka. He rides a bike Jock gave him after he tried out for the team and failed to make the cut. How did he know I was out here? How long had he been following me?

I looked over and smiled. He gave me his big toothy Rambo smile back and we nailed it. Rambo speaks little English and I speak even less Kinyarwanda. That’s okay on this day….I just wanted to ride. I’m riding Jock’s Scott cyclocross bike. The Scott CR1 carbon road bike I had been riding went to Alex, a genocide orphan, who is riding in the Tour of the Volcanoes next week. Rambo is on a GT Hardtail mountain bike and he’s on my wheel. And he stays there. How is he doing this? Just when I think I’m improving.

We ride hard all the way to the Ugandan border. The entire time, Rambo is watching out for me. As kids come running to the road on my right, Rambo quietly pulls on my right side as a buffer between me and the kids. He does the same with people on the left. There is no entourage of local riders with us today. He does all of this without speaking a word. He never says anything to the onlookers. He laughs every now and then at the shouts of Muzungu. How did this man know this is EXACTLY how I wanted to ride today? We turn around at the border and sprint downhill all the way back to Musanze and the Project Rwanda house….and then he’s gone.

I know I will always be an anomaly in Rwanda. I will be Blondie Muzungu on a bike and I’m okay with that. If it intrigues one other woman to get on a bike and ride, then the craziness of my daily rides has been worth it!

Blondie Muzungu has to go touch up her roots...