Friday, July 31, 2009

Can It Really Be Only One More Month?

Today is July 31st. A month from now, August 31st, I will be on a Kenyan Airways flight out of Rwanda.

I have been thinking about my time here. As most of you know by now, I am returning at the end of September, early October, to finish the work we began in April. I simply cannot imagine leaving for good....not now! I still have an NGO to renew.

The NGO issue has become quite defeating. Never in my life have I not been able to do something I set my mind to. If I didn't make something happen one way I always found another way to get it done. For the first time in my life I am completely blocked. I have called in every favor, every contact, prayed my heart out to no avail. If God wanted to teach me perseverance and patience, Rwandan NGO renewal is the catalyst.

Today is August 4th and I'm still not finished with my blog. It's not because I haven't had time. I haven't had the inclination, the right frame of mind, the ability to express in words the roller coaster of emotions I have been riding.

Between Sunday night and Monday night I wanted to go home at least thirteen times. Actually I never really counted, however, it felt like entirely too many. I think I really was ready to plan my escape. The pity party was in full swing and I was dancing on the bar drinking tequila shots! Thank God for new days.

I really haven't had much change between the last couple of days and today other than I have been able to reach out and grasp the hope and hold on just a little bit longer. I hold on because I realize some days no one in their right mind would tackle this for no pay, no electricity, no water, bad hours and incessant shouts of "Muzungu" and "Give me amafaranga". I hold on because I do make a difference by putting a bike in a poor farmer's hands. I hold on because Jock gave me an Organic Cotton, soft as a bunny, bath towel. It's truly the craziest things at the most bizarre moments that make me say....I can do this one more day! You have no idea how much you begin to appreciate little things like nice linens. It makes one feel almost American again.

I'm less than four weeks from going home. I still do not have my NGO renewed, not for lack of head banging, rounding up my Rwandan network of influence posse, or devout prayer. It currently sits in the hands of MINICOM (Ministry of Trade and Industry). It has surfed the Ministry for over three weeks and still no answer. I need them to sign off on the MOU (Memo of Understanding) so I can go back to the Department of Emigration for another go round of "Name That Obscure Form" to hold up the NGO renewal. I have gotten to the point that I am just going through the motions. When people say to me, "Don't worry, you'll get it" I look at them with the initial thought of wanting to smack them upside the head (due to my frustration not their thoughtfulness and hopefulness). Then I just sigh quietly and settle back into my mousetrap wheel. I still hope it will happen. Will I be shocked if I leave here at the end of the mouth not accomplishing this goal, sadly, no. What saddens me most about all of this is how hard I work to make life easier for the majority of poor Rwandans, while a select few decide their fate. It truly is crushing some days.

On top of the NGO issues this week, I have also had three bikes seized at the Ugandan border and been told I cannot export any bikes outside of Rwanda. They were brought into Rwanda to serve Rwandans and as they were brought in under the tax exempt NGO, they cannot leave the country. They are bicycles for Rwandans. Now you can see the agony of this NGO mess. I cannot move bicycles in Rwanda because of our expired NGO, but I cannot move them out. I cannot get the NGO renewed to get more bikes into Rwanda for the same Rwandans that are due the bikes in the first place. Follow the logic...or illogic? Is that a word? It could be here!

So, my great day in the Congo on Sunday with Jock and Jean Paul was for naught. Bikes cannot go across the border. More people need these bikes. These bikes can change their lives but for some crazy law, they sit in a warehouse collecting dust. THIS is why I have days when I feel so defeated and want to go home 13 times in a 24 hour period.

And then....I look over at Jock typing away to Kiki, one of his riders, on his computer. Kiki is here for training camp and is sitting on a computer on the other side of the room.
Jock says...Are you there Kik? Where are you? How are you? Who are you?
Kiki....I am good. I am Kiki. I am at home.
Jock....Thank you Mr. Uwimana. Father of Jonathan Rafiki Uwimana. I am happy when you are in this house.
Kiki....Thank you very much my coach. I am happy when I am here.
Jock....I am glad you can answer me too.

I see this and tears come flooding across my eyes. Sometimes I just have to remember "why" I put up with the craziest. This place, these people, make Kiki feel like this is home. That does it for me.

Last week, as I stood in the customs house at the Rwanda/Uganda border and argued with the agent for over an hour about letting the bicycles leave with my farmer to Uganda, I cried. I looked across at my Ugandan farmer, so excited to have his bikes and I said, "I am so very sorry I cannot make this happen for you." At that moment, a middle aged, poor as dirt, Ugandan farmer and a middle class, white girl from Las Vegas were on the exact same page fighting for the exact same thing. Unfortunately, we both lost....for the moment.

This is why I cannot go home. I have so much unfinished business. September will come quickly and before I know it I'll be on a plane back to Las Vegas. I still cannot imagine landing in Vegas and feeling remotely at home. I have changed so much in my time here in Rwanda. I was a square peg in a round hole living in Vegas four months ago. I am City Center trying to be jammed through a eye of a needle now. I do not know how I am going to react. It is going to be difficult. As much as I wanted to leave the last 24 hours, the more I cannot imagine being any where but here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Another Goodbye....


Once again I'm at the Kigali airport. I'm picking up two volunteers from Boston who will be working with us for the next five weeks. Unfortunately, I'm also dropping off. Another goodbye, this is a big goodbye.

Rebecca decided to leave a couple of weeks ago. I knew it was coming. She is completely, totally, head over heels in love with her fiancee, John. She has been in Rwanda since January when she originally came here as a Peace Corps volunteer. Rwanda has taken its toll and the pull of love in America is too strong. It happens. We all leave at one point. I am happy for her and selfishly sad for me.

I met Rebecca the first night I was in Musanze. She lived down the street from Jock in this unbelievably sketchy horror house provided by the Peace Corps. She had become friends with Jock through John, who had met Jock at Interbike last year. If you don't believe in divine intervention, or cosmic shift this connection will make you a believer. John met Jock. John had just started dating Rebecca. Rebecca had decided to join the Peace Corps and did not know what country she was going to be sent to. She ends up in Rwanda, and after training gets stationed in Musanze, right down the street from Jock. She stays with the Peace Corps until May when, due to her frightening living conditions, ends up at my house and eventually leaves the Peace Corps to work with Project Rwanda. Believe in cosmic forces now?

From the first night I met Rebecca we connected. Yes, another girl and I actually connected. She was easy to be around and incredibly funny. The first night we cooked dinner. Rebecca does not cook, but is a great dish washer! I remember feeling so "at home" that first night. She helped me slide right into my new life in Rwanda.

The laughs we have shared. I will most miss the laughs. The MTV video shoot with the Hugh Hefner of Gisenyi was the highlight of our trip. I know my red bikini butt will show up on some You Tube video clip someday!

Our discussion with Suzanne about "E Pussy" still makes me burst out in laughter. I still wonder what that German tourist thought of our conversation. By the way, that is what they call "cats" in Rwanda. What did you think we were discussing?

The last dinner I had at La Palme was with Rebecca. I haven't been back since the goat "womb" brochette incident. Something about goat womb just doesn't sit right with my intestines. Embrace the parasites and projectile vomit on the side of the road. It is after all a great weight loss system!

I laugh about our bad hair, coloring our bad hair with even worse color. I laugh about our bad skin, all broken out due to bad water and the fact we've actually embraced not showering. How will I ever be able to reenter my "American" world? Do you think they will actually be able to remove all the dirt from under our finger and toe nails?

Everything was always so easy with Rebecca. Jock, Rebecca, Max and I were our own little family away from family. I came to rely on Rebecca not only for the incredible work she did for Project Rwanda after coming on board, but for her insight, her friendship, her humor and her half of the crappy over priced Rwandan wine! Through it all we've managed to get so much accomplished. We've helped Project Rwanda move forward even with the demise of the gin soaked Apple computer!

Today as we were driving to Kigali for the last time, we found ourselves listening to this awful CD, which happens to be one of two really bad CDs I was sent from home. We sang with all the gusto one can muster up for Air Supply's "All Out of Love" on the Road of Death. We waved at the young kids yelling "Muzungu" and yelled back with all our love, "Little Black Kids". We went to lunch at Bourban for one more round of really bad Rwandan service. Oh, Rwanda....

This is a hard "goodbye". I do not express myself openly at times with friends. She probably never knew how much I appreciated her being here. I am so happy for her and her new life. Although I will see Rebecca in September at Interbike she was a constant for me here. She helped keep me sane with some very difficult home dynamics. If at any time I needed someone like her it would be now. She'll just have to keep me laughing via SKYPE....just keep the Gin away from the laptops!

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Morning in Goma, DRC (Congo)


This Sunday morning, just two days shy of my three month tourist visa expiration date; I headed across the border into the DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo. Luckily, I was not alone. Goma, DRC is not a place you want stroll down the streets to your local cafe to grab a cappuccino. Goma is a city with the highest concentration of UN Forces in the entire world. Goma, a city partially destroyed in 2002 by the eruption of a nearby volcano, the lava wiping out a section of the city on its advance to Lake Kivu. In October of last year, rebel forces advanced into Goma threatening to overrun the government and UN forces maintaining peace in the city. I do not understand the politics of the DRC, or who is fighting whom for that matter. You do not need to know anything about the fighting, or the various rebels or the government to know that Goma is hanging by the slightest thread of peace. It is a city of little hope. It is a place that makes one fall to their knees to thank God for the opportunities found in growing up in America.

The main reason I went to Goma, other than keeping myself legal in Rwanda, was curiosity. It was that draw of danger and the desire to see what oftentimes ends up on the page 16 of the Sunday edition of the local newspaper. This is a place no one from the outside world really seems to care much about. Congo is rich in natural resources; the ones who "care" are the ones who want what Congo has.


Another reason Jock and I went across the border was to visit Nyandwi's sister's school. Nyandwi is a rider for Team Rwanda and his younger sister attends school in Goma. She walks 10k every day to attend the school Nyandwi pays for with his earnings from Team Rwanda. He is trying to help make a difference for his sister. Jock and I were the only Americans crossing the border that morning. I was thankful to be with Nyandwi and his sister and I was anxious to see the school. I then I saw the school.

After riding four mototaxis, sans helmets and any semblance of adherence to safety and traffic rules, we arrived at the school. It was down a horrible, pumice laden side road. The pumice is a reminder of the volcanic eruption seven years ago that took out a runway at the airport, swept through the town and killed dozens. The school was empty because it was Sunday but even a full attendance roster could not hide the horrendous condition of the building and the classrooms. As a stepped into the unlit concrete hall my eyes filled with tears. I looked at Jock and mouthed the words, "THIS is her SCHOOL?" He just turned away. I am sure he was just as shocked. How could this possibly be a school? There is no electricity, water is in a 55 gallon drum, the ceiling is falling in, there are no books, no labs, and no desks....this is not a school! This is her only option at education. She wants to be a doctor. How do you become a doctor without a textbook, any textbook?

I tried not to show how appalled I was with the situation. I did not want Nyandwi and his sister to feel uncomfortable. This is their only choice. It is the best one they can make at this point. Take every student, every teacher, and every principal in Las Vegas who complains about not having enough money to educate and let them spend a day in class in Goma. The pictures I posted on Facebook do not even come close to the reality of that school. The smell, the dust, the complete sense of hopelessness cannot be captured in a photo.

After leaving the school I wandered behind Jock lost in my own sadness. The night before I had complained of the terrible service and the overpriced food at our hotel in Gisenyi, on the Rwandan side of Lake Kivu. How could I? I have NOTHING in this world to EVER complain about.

We spent a couple of hours walking around Goma. It was quiet; few people were out and about. Just UN truck after UN truck rolling down the road. The waste of manpower, money and lives is the United Nations. As they adhere to their mantra of "Don't fire unless fired upon", they are first hand witnesses to the ongoing war in the DRC. They will watch people die and never step in. The UN had front row seats to the Rwandan genocide. The UN in Goma also has prime real estate on the edge of Lake Kivu. Needless to say, I am not impressed with the work of the United Nations.

I have been told by some to be careful what I write, to not let my personal views or my blog become my soapbox. I have been told to make sure I do not write about my experiences without first setting the stage so my opinions are not taken out of context. So before I launch into my next attack on misspent money and lack of REAL help let me set the context. Every day I witness large NGO's (Non-government Organizations) spend money, lots of money. I see the staff of these NGO's driving around in their expensive SUVs all throughout town. When you ask what them what they do, generally you get something like, "I handle logistics and team coordination in the field to assess situations that may be complex and be a potential for significant need in the area." WHAT?

This is my job at Project Rwanda, "I sell bikes to people who need them to transport their goods and grow their businesses in order to increase their income at least threefold." So this is my "context". I do my job with three people in Rwanda and until two weeks ago, no vehicle. I care for every penny entrusted to me by our donors. I make sure we live frugally and conscientiously to be able to get the most amount of bikes in the hands of the poor of Rwanda. Every dime counts.

Walking down another lumpy pumice road towards the beautiful Lake Kivu, we come upon the strangest, most surreal sight I have yet to see in Africa. Row and row of large homes, really large homes, big by American standards large homes are built and being built all the way to the lake. Ironically these are the same homes that will probably end up in the lava river again once the volcano decides to erupt again. All these homes are surrounded by barb wire, surveillance cameras and a breathtaking view of the homeless in wood shacks settled in among the lava. Sadly, many of these homes are owned by NGO's. It is truly sickening. When I said I was sadly speechless in my Facebook status update, this was why. When so many people have so little, and you are the only here to assist, provide and offer hope, how do you truly engage while you maintain your "cushy" western life amongst the people of this ravaged city?

It has been two days since I visited Goma. Today I wanted to go home.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day....Are We Truly Free?

Independence Day in Rwanda. Independence Day and the celebrations around the significance of this day in America makes this one of my favorite holidays. Today, it is has a very different feel. It's not about the BBQ, although a succulent pile of pulled pork would be close to heaven for me. It's not about the picnics, the parades, the fireworks. Today, being in Rwanda, I have questioned the idea of Independence. Are we ever really Independent?

Rwanda is not independent. It is not run as a democracy. It is a police state controlled by President Paul Kagame. There are no free elections at the moment. He has been the President for the past 15 years coming to power after the genocide. However, he has made Rwanda a "free" country. It is free from the hideously violent past. People can travel freely within the country. Free enterprise is at work through the Rwanda Development Board. This is Independence for Rwanda. Ironically they celebrated their Independence Day on July 1st.

Paul Kagame is truly a remarkable man. He was able to unite a country that had been under the control of others for decades. He was able to reconcile the people of Rwanda so they would be able to enjoy the independence and freedoms denied by the sadistic, methodical plan of genocide born from years under the control of Belgium. He freed Tutsis from certain death and elimination. He freed Hutus from the evil of destroying an entire tribe. Together they are now free, under the control of President Kagame. This is Independence. This is the only option still for this country. The prayer is President Kagame does not let power corrupt as in the case of so many other African countries. Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, a perfect example. The prayer is that one day there will be free elections that can be held without violence. I pray for his safetly from his enemies that silently exist within this country.

I think about being an American, living and celebrating the freedoms being from the United States offers. However, is America truly free? Yes, our President, Congress, other government officials are elected in "free" elections. However, are they really independent of the influences of lobbyists, money, and the desire for personal power? This is not to be a political discussion. Do not post your political opinions. These thoughts and questions are for you to really digest. On this Independence Day, is America truly free?

I believe we are becoming less "free". The last Presidential election was played out considerably in the media. Media I believe failed to report the "truth" and became too personally intertwined with the person and not the issues. Americans were left with trying to weed through the myriad of papers, mostly backing a candidate without reporting the views and plans for each candidate. I believe both candidates, in their desire to be President, continued to spin the truth for the audience, the media, and for the votes of the people they professed to represent. In the end, when I would talk to people about either candidate and why they voted the way they did I would hear, "I voted for Obama because he gives me hope." Or, "I voted for McCain because he was my only conservative choice." My question now is why didn't America have a choice to pick a President that could answers the issues directly, honesty and then implement their plan without the influence of all the people he "owed" in the end. This is not freedom in the purest sense. We are independent, we are not free.

Again...these are my thoughts, the beauty about America is that we are "free" to openly express our opinions.

Personally, independence comes with a price. My desire to live independently has consequences. The more I taste "freedom" the more it will impact the ones closest to me. How then can I be truly "free"? I struck out on this independent dream months ago. Every day I get more confident in my abilities. It is hard at times for me to feel excited about the freedom to make my new life choices when I understand there is someone at home who wants me home. I feel like I am tied to two worlds. It is frightening to look into the unknown of this pursuit of freedom. I could end up alone. Is being free to do exactly what you want to do at any time worth losing the tie to someone who understands my need for "independence"? I do not anxiously count the days until I get home. I do not think about going home. Can I just be "okay" with being independent?

It seems to work for America, it seems to work for Rwanda, will it work for me?