To Rwanda and back

kaitlin-rocha-groupOn May 15th, 2013, I embarked on a journey of a lifetime, where I learned the greatest lessons of my life. Amongst the land of a thousand hills, lives a nation of welcoming, loving, brave, compassionate, courteous, hopeful, resilient, and happy people that I was fortunate enough to acquaint myself with during a service-learning project in Rwanda. This service-learning project was a component of a course led by Professor Boyi entitled, “Rwanda: Culture, Society, and Reconstruction” through Western University’s French Department. I was placed at Gisimba Memorial Centre’s (GMC) school and adjoining orphanage. I spent the mornings teaching English to 45 children aged 2-4 years old. In the afternoons I would spend time interacting with the people of the orphanage. During my time in Rwanda, my heart was captured and my life was impacted for the better. I came home to Canada feeling blessed for having met such amazing people who transformed how I view the people and world around me. Reading and learning about Rwanda was brought to life through the human experience of this international service-learning project. This was not something I could have learned in a textbook or in the classroom. “As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own” (Mead, 1928).

There is danger in a single story (Adichie, 2009). An entire culture should not be defined by a single stereotype or story. The resiliency after the genocide that affected the people of Rwanda is truly remarkable. I think that developed countries like Canada have a lot to learn from a place like Rwanda. Beyond the tragedies of the genocide and beyond the poverty, the people of Rwanda are human beings who love the very essence of life, and who were not defeated by sadness, but resilient to it. During my placement at GMC, I discovered the true meaning of happiness. The teachers of the classrooms at GMC inspired me more each day with their abundance of happiness, energy, and passion for their work and the children. The people at the orphanage were loved my one another and treated each other as one big family. They brought happiness to each other. It was a relaxed, positive, friendly, and high-energy atmosphere, where we had the opportunity to interact and connect with many people. Our connections grew at GMC, friendships developed, and I began to see my peers more as mentors. I had to remind myself of their stories or what they had been through in their lives because happiness prevailed over sadness.

“It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” (Chinese proverb, author unknown) GMC taught me more in one day than I could teach them in a week. It was not realistic to think that I was going to be able to create huge change in this short amount of time or give them as much as they were giving me, but what I could do was share as much as I could, connect with as many people, and try to impact their lives in some way. Sharing culture, interacting with the teachers and children of the school, and people of the orphanage, getting to know their stories, and trying to impact their lives would make a difference. I made posters and visual aids to help with teaching. I sang songs and came up with creative activities to help teach various concepts. In the afternoons at the orphanage, some larger group activities were organized such as limbo, the human knot, and an art day. I also tried to reach out to as many of the people as possible. The youth and young adults of the orphanage taught me traditional dancing, gave me Kinyarwanda lessons, while I taught them English. We painted our nails, listened to music, and much more.  I impacted as many lives as I could during my time there, we shared culture, we blurred the boundaries between cultures, we explored emotions, and I formed some of the most heart-felt friendships I have made in my lifetime.

kaitlin-rocha-cuddle“We do not see things as they are; instead we see them as we are.” (Nin, source unknown)  The international service-learning project really opened up my eyes to a bigger world. It reminded me of how much I have yet to learn about the world around me. I was so curious and eager to embrace this experience and discover another part of the world that was previously unknown to me. No matter how much I learned about Rwanda prior to leaving, it was not until I immersed myself in their culture that I came to better understand and empathize with the people. Their struggles and problems are so different and unlike what we experience in Canada. The teachers, children and people of GMC taught me what it means to be happy, to love, to be committed, to trust, to be kind, to give selflessly, to be proud, to forgive, and what it means to be a family. Although these are qualities and emotions that I thought I understood before, they were given new context and a whole new meaning during my experience there. I witnessed the simplicity of life with minimal material items, and an abundance of pure and genuine qualities and emotions. I witnessed the happiness and laughter of children who were playing games with sticks and chasing a moving tire; the love of children as they dusted the dirt off the shoes of a friend or shared the food they were given with an orphan who did not have any; the commitment of teachers working to better the children;  the trust the children had in us as we were called their teachers and their friends; the kindness that every member of GMC showed us as they welcomed us every morning and afternoon; the selfless giving of the teachers and students of the school and people of the orphanage as they gave the one bracelet on their own hand to me as a gesture of appreciation; the pride that they walk with every day despite the tragedies of the genocide that affected their lives, losing their parents or families, or being abandoned by their parents; their ability to forgive and resiliency after the genocide; and the close-knit family of GMC who are constantly loving and caring for one another. I will carry these memoires with me wherever I go, and I will strive to emulate the people of GMC in my life!

kaitlin-rocha-cover-imageThis experience has opened my eyes to new ideas and alternative solutions to incorporate in my life. This experience was beyond anything I could ever have imagined. As I saw different ways of life in another part of the world, I was challenged to experience my emotions in new ways and discover parts of myself that I did not know before. Though challenging, it was the happiest, most humbling, and most fulfilling time of my life. I would not trade it for anything in this world! I cannot thank Rwanda and its people enough for giving me new life by sharing their lives with me. I hope to be an ambassador of these lessons by emulating what I have learned from GMC and Rwanda in my life.

By Kaitlin Rocha (’13)

Recent grad helps women in Ghana become self sufficient

At the beginning of this year Gillian Perera, with a BSc in Foods and Nutrition under her belt began to look for internships where she knew she could make a difference. She eventually applied to Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), a Canadian organization that helps women in rural communities gain access and use appropriate and nutritious food and, to her great joy, she was offered a five-month internship in Ghana. She tells us about her exciting experiences so far from home.

gillian-perera-cooking-in-Ghana-500I’ve been in Ghana for over two months now and the time has been flying by. I still can’t believe how comfortable I am here. Yet it really was and still is a learning experience. Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW), organized through MEDA, specializes in the development of the economically viable all over the world. They don’t provide aid or handouts but rather believe in providing “business solutions to poverty.” The project in Ghana focuses on the northern half of the country, which has significantly higher levels of poverty, malnutrition, and drought compared to the south. And it also focuses on women farmers because there is a huge cultural/traditional gender disparity here. Men generally have control over all income and assets even though the women are expected to work on their farms, care for the children, and find some other income-generating activity. Our project helps women gain access to larger plots of land, to financial services such as micro-loans, to agricultural services including tractors and seeds, and to nutrition education to prepare food for their family and children. That’s where I come in!

I must say I expected nothing coming here. I thought I would be living in a village, backpacking around and pretty much living an extremely modest lifestyle. But it has been nothing like that. The organization really takes care of us and we have drivers and a great office with local Ghanaian staff. I share a nice, two-bedroom, second-storey home that has air conditioning and hot water with one other intern. And I get to travel a lot both for work and for pleasure. We have donors who visit from Canada and the U.S. so I get to take them on tours, work permitting. And our vacation time is amazing. I’ve travelled to the coast in Southern Ghana. I’m going to Burkina Faso soon, and will visit Togo and Tanzania before I come back home in December.

However, my greatest satisfaction and excitement comes from meeting the communities and women of our project. When we go into the villages, they are so grateful for our assistance. While some of them are used to handouts because of other NGOs, they recognize that we’re providing them with a business opportunity to last a lifetime that will really change their lives. The women are gaining more independence and husbands are supporting them in this project because their economic situation is so hard. Many kids just can’t go to school because they can’t afford the school fees or they’re too sick or they have to work on the fields. Their lives are so simple. Imagine no technology! They have radios and some have cell phones but they don’t read newspapers or watch TV or have the internet. I live in the capital of the northern region, which is a city of maybe 400,000 but the project is four hours west of my city and very rural, with terrible infrastructure and dirt roads that are flooded in the rain. Yet the people there are so happy and grateful. With very few material things they are very spiritual and family-oriented and tradition means a lot to them. I’ve met beautiful people with wonderful stories. Sometimes I find it hard to believe my own eyes and ears. I’m truly grateful for every moment of my time here and the humbling and enriching experience it has been.

I recently submitted a huge nutrition needs assessment of the communities we are working in (we have registered 4,000 women so far) with my recommendations and implementation strategy for designing and developing the nutrition education/food demonstrations sessions. I’m acquiring the perfect skills for a career in community nutrition. I could never have imagined the experience I was going to have once I arrived. I was scared before leaving home but it has been a blessing given to me by God and has set me on the path I’ve dreamed of.

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When we go into communities, we are welcomes with traditional song and/or dance. On this occasion, I accompanied staff members who were going to gender-sensitization activities with women and men.

gillian-perera-Women-in-Ghana-with-crops-500Learning to cook local dishes with Pasculina, the cook, for one of our offices. While conducting my nutrition needs assessment, I took it upon myself to really understand the local dishes and traditional food preparation.

We periodically go to see women enrolled in the project and how their soya fields are growing. These women are all farmers.

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Grains sold in the market in Tamale, Ghana. Shopping for food without labels or packaging was a serious learning curve.

By Gillian Perera