The World is a Book: A Page in Rwanda

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine Lydia Hsu comes from the 10-square mile patch of green in upstate New York that calls itself home to Cornell University – otherwise known as Ithaca, New York. Since middle school, she has wanted to pursue a career in teaching English, but after taking her first class on Africa at Northwestern with Professor Glassman, she decided to major in both English Literature and African Studies and pursue a Secondary Teaching Certification through SESP. Outside of classes, she divides her time between work, student groups, and play. She is a teaching assistant for the Center for Talent Development and a Jumpstart Corps Member at Howard Area Community Center. She serves as the Events Coordinator for the African Students Association, the leader of the Undergraduate Africa Seminar, the African Studies Representative on the Weinberg Student Advisory Board, and the Publicity Chair for TOMCats. Outside of all of this, she enjoys nighttime walks on the lake fill, Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances, days spent at the Art Institute, and spontaneous Red Mango runs. This summer, she will turn another page and go to Rwanda to teach English at Network for Africa’s Learning Centre in Kigali. This project unites all three of her academic interests – English, African Studies, and Secondary Education – in the goal of creating and implementing an ELL curriculum for students at the school. She will not only have the opportunity to take what she has learned about Rwanda and English education to develop an ELL curriculum, but she will also have the chance to challenge and supplement what she has learned to enrich her understanding of Rwanda and expand her experience as an English teacher – both of which she hopes will give her a glimpse of what she eventually plans to do for the long-term. GRANT: Lydia is travelling on an Immersion Experience Grant given by the Office of the Provost. This grant offers $2,000 of support for students engaged in intensive summer experiences, whether based domestically or internationally. For more information about the grant, go to: http://www.northwestern.edu/immersion/who.html

Dubai – A City (and Experience) of Extremes





 

Oh, how I’ve missed the hustle and bustle of moving crowds, the never-ending spectrum of lights, and the warm glow of life that bursts from the hearts of big cities!

After the longest duration of time that I’ve ever spent away from the States (almost three months), the sight of the Dubai International Airport immediately brought tears to my eyes. I clung to the moving handrails of the escalators and stared at the colorful shops and throngs of people that hustled past me – stared as if I had never seen such things in my life.

As the impatient crowd pushed past me and moved me forward, I felt oddly shy and timid. Nothing around me was new, but the sights, the smells, and the noises conjured memories of a world I had once known before I came to Kigali. Something seemed strange and unsettling about the lavish displays of extravagance around me, but I couldn’t process the conflicting emotions that I felt. Fear. Relief. Sadness. Happiness. Displacement. Wonder.

View of Dubai from my room.

 

If the airport almost made me cry, the Dubai skyline certainly made the tears flow. I had my nose pressed to the window of the car as I gazed open-mouthed at the wide expanse of Dubai’s towering, magnificent splendor. 

I only spent three days in Dubai, but I did everything a person could possibly do in 72 hours.

 

Lydia’s Recipe for an Incredible 3 Days in Dubai:

  1. Obtain a free round-trip plane ticket from Rwandair to go to Dubai.
  2. Stay with a friend of a friend (who actually turns out to be an old acquaintance) in an apartment with a $3 million view of the city.
  3. Shop for shoes at the largest mall in the world and meet an Egyptian Burberry model who insists on being your tour guide for the next 2.5 days.

Yeah. So maybe I was a little lucky.

 

 

 

You must be wondering how I scored that free ticket.

Context: Solid’Africa had 150 t-shirts stuck in Dubai, which we desperately needed in order to sell and raise enough money to serve food to hospital patients the following week. Nobody seemed to be making any breakthroughs with the situation, so I figured I’d see what I could do.

Remember that incident with the netbook charger way back in December? [Here’s the link to that post to refresh your memory: http://blog.undergradresearch.northwestern.edu/worldisabook/2010/12/05/%E2%80%9Cyou-will-fall%E2%80%9D-a-lesson-about-limitations-and-perspective/]

 

Desert safari camel-riding!

Well, I decided that if United Airlines could check-in a box for me from Chicago to D.C. for free, then Rwandair should be able to do so too. I made a couple phone calls, pushed Solid’Africa’s mission in public hospitals, stressed urgency – and, voila, Rwandair agreed to airlift the two boxes for free!

BUT BUT BUT … A Rwanda Revenue Authority (Customs) rep claimed that I would have to pay 50% of the value of the t-shirts for import fees. *Rolls eyes* Absolutely ridiculous. I went directly to the Kigali offices of the RRA and spent an entire day speaking with the directors who assured me that the import duties should only be 25% for non-profit organizations. I connected THESE directors with the conniving rep who had told me 50%, and … Yes, the RRA fees shrank from 50% to 25%.

BUT THEN … a cargo company in Dubai insisted that I would have to pay over 60% of the value of the boxes which were already designated as a FOC (free of charge) shipment. Basically, they wanted to charge me $213 for “labeling” and “handling.”

Seriously?

In a rapid exchange of over twenty-five emails between myself, three Rwandair representatives, RRA, and this ridiculous Dubai cargo company, I expressed my incredulity and suggested that Rwandair either: 1) book a one-way flight for the boxes, OR 2) have one of their flight attendants check-in the boxes to evade the “labeling and handling” fees.

Of course, the Dubai cargo company had problems with my proposal. The rep stated: “Due to security reasons, we cannot label [the boxes] as Crew baggage or Company mail and unaccompanied baggage is not permitted.”

I found Chicago in Dubai!!

Really annoyed at this point, I wrote the following email:

 

Hi [Rwandair rep],

If this is the case, would it be possible to book a round-trip flight for me (or another member of Solid’Africa) to pick-up the two boxes and accompany them back to Kigali on Saturday morning?

Or do you have other suggestions on the most efficient way to proceed?

Best,

Lydia


And Rwandair said … YES!

12 hours later, I was buckling my seat belt on a complimentary round-trip flight to Dubai. The earliest flight back to Kigali was in three days, so I had arranged accommodations with a friend of a friend and packed half a suitcase knowing that I would have to bring 40 kilos of t-shirts back with me.

Isn’t it nice to look back and see how that misadventure in December ended up teaching me some very valuable lessons? 🙂

 

Dubai: City of Perks … and Elitism, Prostitution, and Racism?

After two months in Rwanda, I’ve learned to accept that waiters may take one hour to bring me a cup of tea. I’ve become accustomed to being ignored and dismissed as a customer and a hospital patient. I’ve grown used to repeatedly reminding waiters about my order only to still receive the wrong dish and wait another half hour while two waiters dance in the corner (clearly high). I’ve given up trying to get restaurants to change the three clubbing songs that keep looping over and over while customers try to converse over red wine at dinner.


Boy, was Dubai a shock in customer service.

My first stop in Dubai: The largest mall in the world! I was so excited about shopping at The Dubai Mall that I couldn’t sleep the night before and I got up one hour before the stores opened in the morning. I probably walked around the building for two hours gaping at the sheer enormity of the complex before I realized I hadn’t eaten, and then decided to stop by the Dean & Deluca Cafe (based in NYC).

The moment I entered, the waiter greeted me and gave me a tour of the terrace, and asked if I would like him to take pictures – YES. Then, when I couldn’t decide what to order, he winked and offered me items that were not listed on the menu AND sent me an additional meal on the house! I was so blown away by his kindness and generosity.

As I sipped my fresh strawberry juice and peeled away at the most sinfully sumptuously almond croissant ever, I suddenly realized that living in Kigali had conditioned me to view customer service as a rare extravagance instead of a necessary component of one’s dining experience.

 

After brunch, I wandered around the mall some more. The Dubai Mall is, in reality, a city within a city – I mean, come on, the mall has 1,200 shops, the largest aquarium in the world, the largest candy store in the world, an indoor ski slope, an indoor hockey rink, a runway arena, a cinema, a kids’ amusement park, a gold market, etc. I allowed myself to drift near the windows of shoe stores, but would then quickly back away with a stern reminder: No shopping, Lydia. There’s no room in your suitcase with those 150 t-shirts.

But … I couldn’t resist Kurt Geiger.

Those mirrored reflections of four-inch platform heels were too irresistible. I decided to take a quick look, and immediately told the sales associate (at least I thought he was a sales associate): “I can’t buy any shoes, but I just wanted to take a look.” A half hour later, I left with two complimentary pairs of Kurt Geiger heels plus a new best friend/Dubai city expert – the sales associate, who was actually a manager of Kurt Geiger’s UK, Italy, and UAE branches (and also happened to be a former Burberry model).

 

The next 2.5 days flew by quickly – dinner accompanied by a beautiful evening fountain show (definitely beats Vegas!), a desert safari followed by Arabic dancing and camel-riding, a boat tour along the creek, a trip to the top of Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world!), a visit to the Dubai Museum, a walk through the silk and tapestry market in Old Dubai, a night out at Dubai’s poshest clubs – not to mention amazing Lebanese and Egyptian food!

 

Overlooking Dubai from the top of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

It was an incredible experience.

And yet – I have mixed feelings about Dubai.

Dubai is a city of extremes, an adult Disneyland of sorts where dreams are not merely conceived but physically realized and constructed. There’s this constant pulse in the heavy heat that demands the city and its citizens to exhibit the best – the tallest, the fastest, the newest, the biggest, the costliest, the fanciest, etc. I was astonished by the deliberate and, oftentimes, ridiculous displays of wealth and extravagance that were paraded on the streets (i.e. a hot pink Ferrari further embellished with precious jewels), displayed in buildings (i.e. gold ATMS that dispense gold), and masqueraded in public (how is that woman able to stand up with all that gold around her neck???).

Elitism in Dubai was a given. Here was a place where people had more money than they really knew how to spend, so all they did was … spend it.

But I was surprised and very disturbed by the extreme racism and racial profiling that I witnessed – and eventually, even experienced.

 

Let’s first talk about prostitution.

Prostitution is rampant in Dubai. And, according to my friends, it is the very people who run Dubai – the Sheikhs – who are also the facilitators of prostitution. Apparently, the Sheikhs regularly import attractive young women from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, keep them for two or three months, and then pimp them out to the rest of the city. Most of the hotspots in Dubai are filled with prostitutes, and at some of the more exclusive clubs (like Armani or Cavalli), prostitutes can charge as much as $1000 a night. I didn’t realize (or believe) at first that the beautiful young women around me were prostitutes, but as my friend narrated hypothetical dialogues, I watched an entire transaction occur right across the bar:

 

  1. Man approaches woman and stands next to her but doesn’t look at her.
  2. Man sips drink and slides money under Woman’s drink.
  3. Woman lifts drink to lips and spreads out the money with one finger.
  4. Woman turns and walks away, drink in hand.
  5. Man puts money back into wallet.

[For more on the irony of prostitution in Dubai, read: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/16/dubai-sex-tourism-prostitution]

 

That same night, I was denied entrance to a club for the first time in my life.

The bouncer coldly refused to let me enter, and when I told him my friends were in the club, he said that they would just have to join me outside.

Fortunately, my friend’s friendship with the manager resulted in a rather awkward resolution when the manager ushered me into the building and apologized for the bouncer’s “mistake.”

His “mistake,” as it turns out, was that he had thought I was a prostitute.

Yikes.

That was a first as well.

Turns out some clubs are designated only for Eastern European prostitutes whereas others have a more Filipino demographic. Unless you are extremely well-connected or with someone well-connected, it can be difficult to get into some clubs if you are Asian or your skin is dark. It’s not that I haven’t experienced racial profiling before, but … I guess it’s been a while, and I definitely did not expect it in Dubai where 85% of the population is ex-pat.

The largest aquarium in the world!

 

Dubai took my breath away.

Half the time I was there, I was asking “How is this possible?” But I suppose that is the point of Dubai; after all, it is a booming city with everything you could possibly imagine and more in the middle of a barren desert. I gaped at the man-made islands and sprawling beaches, the grandiose architecture, the extremities of wealth that adorned cars, clothing, restaurants, and night life.

But in the end, it was a relief to return to Kigali where life does not exactly take your breath away, but it gives you air to breathe.

It was Dubai that served as a catalyst for my post about beauty and superficiality – the obsession with physical appearance and, especially, material possessions, go to whole new extremes in Dubai. Whereas all that is “beautiful” in Dubai correlates with cost, in Kigali, you can find beauty in the natural sloping and fertility of the hills, the diversity and abundance of its wildlife, the large wedding gatherings on Saturday afternoons, and the small town charm of good local food.

Here, in Kigali, social status and physical appearance matter too, but the culture does not link a person’s value to the car he drives or the clothing brands she wears – instead, there is greater emphasis on one’s place in society, the role one serves in the community and the personal connections one maintains with others.

And so I call Dubai a “city of extremes” – a city where one can experience the greatest highs and lows of wealth and grandeur, but a city where one will not easily find the steady, calm pace of breathing that belongs to a life of moderation.

 

 

On Beauty: Sean Kingston, Ethiopian Flight Attendants, and Tolerating Disapproval

Apparently I am “not thick enough” for American R&B pop-star, Sean Kingston.

[For those of you who do not know what “thick” means, you can look up the definition at www.urbandictionary.com]

On September 17, Kingston performed at Amahoro Stadium with Rwandan singer, Tom Close.

Despite all the anticipation and hype about the event, even a Saturday night could not draw me out of the house for the concert. It had been raining all day and, in Kigali, rain is a perfectly legitimate excuse to not go out. Think about it – many of the roads in Kigali are still unpaved, and most people walk or take motos to get around town. Unless you want to get completely soaked riding a moto or throw away yet another pair of shoes from walking in the muddy red soil, you’d do better to stay indoors.

So I stayed at home and watched Star Dust instead.

Fortunately, I didn’t miss much – later reports of a “lame” concert in which Kingston only performed four songs while the entire audience got progressively soaked in the rain didn’t sound nearly as exhilarating as a film about witches who want to carve out and eat the heart of Claire Danes.

But after the concert ended at 10 PM and the weather cleared up, my phone started to go berserk with all the incoming calls and texts about “The Official After-party” with … dun-dun-dun: Mr. Sean Kingston himself.

Hours later, I found myself in a car with friends driving from Sundowner to Legacy, and then from Legacy to Cadillac where – yes, we finally ran into Kingston.

 

A club in Kigali called "Shooters"

Having previously worked in Chicago night life, I’ll give you a brief run-down of night life in Kigali.

I guess you could say that clubs in Kigali are chill?The DJs play a mix of your Top 40s infused with African pop, but the songs are sometimes played in the exact same sequence as they were last summer. The clubs are small single-story buildings and not particularly well-ventilated. The “dress code” standards are relatively conservative (mid-thigh dresses and heels over 3” are still rather scandalous here) and there are few female bartenders (much less go-go dancers), but the bigger clubs are filled with prostitutes who have no qualms about directly, and sometimes aggressively, soliciting male ex-pats. The drinks are strong, the service is slow, and the night life culture in Kigali still serves the interests of men (so if you get harassed, the club isn’t going to throw the guy out).

But, not surprisingly, many aspects of Kigali night life operate in exactly the same way as they do in Chicago. You see the same crowd moving around all the popular hotspots in Kigali. This consistent crowd of club-goers (which one of my night life partners in Chi has fondly termed “The Degenerates”) serve as the backbone of Kigali’s social scene. In this crowd, money flows easily for drinks and V.I.P. access to networking events where one mingles with other known members of the same crowd. Your ability to ease into these hotspots depends on your position in society, your connections, your wealth, your appearance – any or all of the above.

Sounds like night life in the States, right?

 

Flight attendants on Ethiopian Airlines


Let’s talk about appearance.

When I walked into Cadillac and entered the V.I.P. area where Mr. Kingston had sprawled himself across a couch, I was told by his producer that I was “not thick enough for Sean” but I was “cute enough” to enter. Not to worry, I wasn’t terribly offended. In fact, I took the statement as a mild compliment (since I am quite confident that I would not want to be “thick enough” for Mr. Kingston). However, I was greatly amused and fascinated about the concept of “beauty” – not only as it is perceived by Kingston, but also by Rwandans, and, well, by everyone, really.

 

Beauty is a funny thing.

Last summer, one of my Rwandan friends proudly told me that sometimes people mistake her for being Ethiopian. She explained to me that in Eastern Africa, Rwandese women are well-known for their beauty but many women still aspire to look like Ethiopian women. Her statement was affirmed by numerous conversations I’ve overheard among men (Rwandese and ex-pat) who will eagerly share their admiration for Ethiopian female beauty. While I was in Nairobi, my male friends excitedly shared their enthusiasm for an Ethiopian New Year event where many Ethiopian women would be present. Ethiopian Airlines, in particular, has a well-known reputation for its beautiful flight attendants —  and, as a frequent customer of the airline, I would have to agree that the attendants are remarkably beautiful.

When I took “Human Sexuality” in January 2009, Professor Michael Bailey discussed the basis of beauty in physical symmetry, the 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio, the health of skin and hair, the “ideal” weight (which differs in various communities and societies), the scent of pheromones. The biological explanations for perceived beauty make sense when you recognize that men want to disseminate their seed in healthy vessels that will continue their genes, and women want to produce healthy offspring to loyal caretakers/providers who will ensure the survival of their offspring. The perceived notion of what is desirable and what is beautiful emerges from the biological drive to perpetuate the species.

 

A Google result of "Asian beauty"

In Kigali, people often tell me that I am “smart” (well-dressed) or “beautiful.” They also tend to guess that I am Korean or Japanese or Filipino or Thai or of mixed Asian heritage – basically anything except Chinese. [I’ll forgive them for not guessing Taiwanese – which is what I actually am – because of Taiwan’s relative obscurity and controversy as a country to many Rwandans (apologies to my Taiwanese readers)].

Essentially what I’ve realized over time is that many Rwandese people assume that I am not Chinese because they have this notion that Chinese women are unattractive based off of the population of Chinese women they have seen in Kigali. On the other hand, many guess that I am Korean because they firmly believe that “Korean women are the most beautiful women in the world” – which is very flattering but also always makes me think of my grandmother’s assertion that “Chinese parents save up money for their children to go to college, Korean parents save up money for their children to have plastic surgery.” (Harsh, I realize, but also part of the discussion on beauty).

*[10/10/2011: In trying to present different perspectives, I have unintentionally granted power to the statement above  instead of demonstrating the extremity of its generalizations. Yes, plastic surgery is a widespread phenomenon in Korea, but Korean parents are also very zealous about the education their children receive. The very existence of these statements underscores how sensitive people are about beauty, especially how they compare to others.

A good friend forwarded me a fascinating article on this subject, in which China’s vice health minister asserts that “Chinese make up 30 percent of cosmetic surgery patients in Seoul.” Ironic, huh? Here it is: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/24/world/asia/24beijing.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all].

I suppose it is ironic that I have often felt unattractive as an Asian woman. While my weight is normal and perhaps even on the slimmer side in Kigali, I feel overweight among many of my female Asian counterparts. I always feel discouraged when I go from a size 0/XS in the States to a size M or even L in Asia. I am also acutely aware that my skin is much darker than the porcelain white complexion that is so prized in many Asian communities. In high school, many of my female Asian friends wore sweaters to outdoor gym classes and brought umbrellas to protect their skin from the sun. At home, they applied a variety of cosmetic solutions every day to further lighten their skin. Historically, Asian aristocrats have prized their pale complexion over the rough sun-tanned skin of famers so I guess it makes sense that, even while tanned skin has become more acceptable over the years, most models and actresses cast in Asian sitcoms continue to be fair and pale.

The preoccupation with beauty that I observed in high school evolved into an almost crazed obsession in college. The diversity of interests and talents among Northwestern’s students paralleled the range of eating disorders and physical insecurities that I witnessed on campus. I knew girls who were insecure about their weight, about their noses, about their height, about their skin, about their chests, about their eyebrows, about their voices, about their teeth. Then, there were also the girls who were concerned about not owning a North Face fleece or coat, a pair of Tori Burch flats, Burberry earmuffs and rain boots. I watched girls pinch their arms and stomachs in disappointment in front of mirrors, I saw girls starve themselves and faint mid-conversation, I listened to girls crying while they retched in dormitory bathrooms, I observed the rows of girls running desperately every day on treadmills in the gyms.

I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that I was also one of these girls.

It is a tragedy. And the worst part is that while women will often blame men for instigating their obsession with beauty, I honestly believe that women are equally responsible for projecting their insecurities on others and, in doing so, perpetuating their own demons through the judgment and criticism of other women. Yes, college gossip websites such as CollegeACB often served the interests of men (particularly those in fraternities and athletics) who mercilessly dissected and categorized female students on campus. However, much of the ruthless gossip was also fueled by women who participated in spreading vicious lies and cruel criticism of the bodies of other women. 

Last summer when I went to Goma (in the DRC) I was shocked and dismayed by how many Congolese women applied lightening products to their skin. I had, of course, fallen into the trap of thinking that the problems I had witnessed in the United States and in Asia wouldn’t exist in the Congo. But in all of my travels to the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Rwanda, the Congo, Kenya, China, Taiwan, the UK – I have yet to find a society where women aren’t crippled by their physical insecurities. Why can’t our apparent “flaws” be unique sources of beauty? Why must we look Ethiopian, or Brazilian, or half-Asian in order to be beautiful?

 

LEARN TO TOLERATE DISAPPROVAL” has become one of the most liberating mantras in my life.

Ultimately, it was a realization that there will always be people who disapprove of you, and the best thing you can do for yourself is to accept it and move forward.

Does beauty matter in society? Yes, it does – and arguably more than it should.

Is beauty the only thing that matters in society? No, it is not.

Everything in life has its pros and cons – and beauty is one of those things. Beauty can make your life easier in some ways and more difficult in others. Beauty may grant access to VIP treatment and earn perks – free drinks, expedited service, complimentary meals, favoritism – but it may also deny access to respect and genuine valuation as an individual with more than what is immediately realized on the outside. In Chicago, beauty may mean that you can cut past the crowd and enter every club without paying for cover or a single drink all night; in Dubai, beauty may mean that you are refused entrance to a club based on suspicions that you may be a prostitute. (True story).

Many of the cliches turn out to be true: “Beauty is skin-deep.” It can be here today and gone tomorrow.

For nearly two years, I participated in fashion shows and photo shoots where modeling and walking down runways was a source of healing and escape. But over time, the destructive pressure from the industry began to outweigh the therapeutic benefits. It became more and more difficult to shrink a body that no longer had the same speedy metabolism, and desperate measures to reach the ever evasive Size 0 only resulted in even more damaging and permanent consequences. It hurt to read comments from others about having a “massive pooch” or hear people comment on how much weight I had gained. Finally – the last straw – a show where I found myself surrounded by “real” models who were pencil-thin and towered over my 5’3” frame. In the midst of crumbling from physical comparisons to these goddesses, I realized this: The moment that I stepped on that runway, I was asking for an entire auditorium to evaluate me based on my physical appearance. I wanted people to see me for more than what was on the outside and I complained about the superficiality of society, but I was the one who was placing myself in environments where my entire value was skin-deep.

 

The lovely Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn is one of my childhood heroes, and even now that I’m twenty-two, I still think that she is one of the most beautiful women to ever grace this earth. I want to share one of her famous sayings:

 

For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others,

For beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness,

And for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”

 

We can recognize the significance and influence of external beauty but – whether Sean Kingston thinks we are “thick” or not – it is always more valuable and worthwhile to invest in beauty that comes from within.

Sending my love to all the beautiful women out there!

 

 

 

The Perverse Comedy: Continued / Learning to Be Grateful

“Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs;

he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter” – Nietzsche

 

Last Friday, September 9, I flew to Mombasa, Kenya to meet with X and reach an agreement about his contribution to Solid’Africa.

The trip was a gamble in several ways.

First of all, you should know that I already doubted that the chicken farm would be feasible within the remaining two-week time frame of my grant (I have to submit a final report by Sept 26).

The farm, while ideal in terms of sustainability, is something that would require much more time and maneuvering to realize. In addition, X’s business is based in Mombasa, so his ability to help me set up the farm in Kigali would be very limited. So (after speaking to my wonderful friend in government) I developed a back-up plan – I figured if X really wanted to help out, it would be much more realistic and practical for him to first construct the soup kitchen for Solid’Africa before working with me to develop the chicken farm. The construction of the soup kitchen – which Solid’Africa estimated would cost about $100,000 – would be ideal for both parties, because it is the more immediate need for Solid’Africa and it is entirely within the domain of X’s construction business. I planned to push the chicken farm but then suggest the (donated) construction of the soup kitchen as a more realistic alternative.

Second, this was my first time attempting to negotiate a business arrangement and I was very nervous. I have no experience in business and my inexperience was compounded by an extreme dread of failure. I was worried about spending five days in Mombasa and returning to Kigali empty-handed. And with the looming “final report” date for my grant over my head, I felt immense pressure to deliver results.

Third, as a young woman, I was worried about traveling alone to a city I had never been to and staying with a man I barely knew. I had met with X four or five times in Kigali and found him to be genuine and sincere – still, in my ultra-paranoia and distrust of strangers, I wanted to proceed with caution. I reached out to my two other contacts in Kenya (based in Nairobi) and also made sure all my closest friends and family in Rwanda and the States knew where I would be. I was encouraged by the fact that I would meet his wife and children, but still very much aware of my vulnerability in going on this trip.

 

Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face” ~Victor Hugo

 

I will reflect more on my experience in Mombasa later, but for now, I want you to know the main circumstances and events of this trip.

As soon as I arrived in Mombasa (Tangent: I actually fell asleep on the one-hour ride and almost ended up in Dubai, but the Kenyan police managed to find me on board – I can’t imagine it was very difficult to find the one passenger who could possible be “Lydia Hsu”), one of X’s drivers took me directly to X’s construction company.

There, X showed me all the components of his construction business. I saw the compression of the raw material, the cutting of the metal beams, the assembly of walls, molding of sinks and toilets, carpentry of doors and furniture, and the final finishing touches in paint and design.

I was very impressed by how X had essentially ensured that he produced, manufactured, and delivered ALL of the components of his construction business.

We then went to this office to talk business.

When I spoke to X earlier in Kigali, I was under the impression that his chicken farm was already well underway. However, I quickly discovered that – while yes, he had secured all of the land and the hatching machines from China and the construction of the house – he was far from being IN business with the farm.

X still wanted to help me to develop a chicken farm in Kigali and insisted that it was a sure investment, but I began to develop my pitch and move toward the idea of first constructing the soup kitchen before working on the chicken farm.

Fortunately, X liked the idea.

We immediately called one of the leaders of Solid’Africa and exchanged emails to facilitate the arrangement. X agreed to donate all of the materials for the construction of the kitchen as well as the services of his construction team in Kigali to assemble the building. All he asked was for me/Solid’Africa to cover the cost of shipment, which he assured me would be no more than $5,500.

Now, all that remained was the paperwork.

Even though X was beaming and strutting around his office as if everything was signed and sealed, I was still bent on pushing the agreement further toward the shipment of the materials. X, however, told me repeatedly to “relax” and “trust” and that we would continue the process on Monday.

I did not want to compromise the positive rapport and jeopardize the arrangement, so I conceded and proceeded to “be relaxed” and “happy.”

This was, I realize now, a mistake.

 

ACT I: The Mombasa Malady

I will not go into detail (because I know sometimes my posts can be tmi), but over the next day and a half, my anxiety and discomfort escalated and began to take a serious toll on my health. As you may recall, I had just barely recovered from “organ dysfunction” due to extreme stress, and this trip was quickly plunging me into even greater levels of stress. Not to worry – I was not physically harmed in any way – but I did endure a very emotionally and mentally strenuous stay in Mombasa that ultimately culminated in illness. On Saturday night, I threw up at X’s restaurant and quickly returned to the house. I spent the next few hours on the phone with loved ones who insisted that I fly back to Kigali immediately.

I need to think on this more – but perhaps business is not the right calling for me.

In those moments of hysteria, I began to put my desire to help and do good over my personal well-being. I prioritized the security of the business arrangement and the need to deliver results, and in doing so, trapped myself in Mombasa where I was miserable, sick, and frightened.

Looking back, I hope that I will never again be in a situation where I value business over personal comfort and security.

I know now that it was not worth it.

 

The next morning, I tried to “manage” the situation and arrange an earlier flight home to Kigali. X was displeased and said, “But that is bad because you are leaving without finishing anything.”

However, I tried to be firm and insist that I needed to see my doctor. I also emphasized that if he was truly committed to building this kitchen, I should not have to remain in Mombasa to see through the rest of the arrangement. Right?

Truth is though – I was already checked out and, kitchen or no kitchen, I really just needed to go home.

 

ACT II: RwandAir “Refund”

I called RwandAir to change my return flight.

You won’t believe what they told me.

Sorry, miss, but our system shows that your ticket has been refunded.”

I tried unsuccessfully to explain that my round-trip ticket could not possibly have been refunded because “Yes, sir, I flew to Mombasa. I am here right now. Would you like to see my visa?” and “How could you possibly refund my round-trip ticket if I already took the first flight to Mombasa?” and “I don’t know who you could have refunded because I haven’t received a refund.”

RwandAir would not let me change my flight.

Go. Figure.

You can imagine the escalating stress.

Fortunately, X arranged for me to fly to Nairobi with his business partner, who would give me a place to stay and also take care of my flight to Rwanda in the morning. The JetLink airlines representative told us over the phone that I could pick up and pay for my ticket when I arrived at Mombasa International Airport.

Whew.

Or so I thought.

(By the way, I hope you’re getting the gist of this story).

 

X’s partner was having so much fun at the pool that she decided to postpone her flight, but promised that she would arrange for her driver to pick me up from the airport. I decide that, just in case, I would let my friend in Nairobi know that I was arriving at the airport at 9:30 PM. I figured at the rate things were going – who knew what else could happen?

At least I did that much right.

 

ACT III: JetLink “Cancellation”

I arrived at Mombasa International Airport with one of X’s workers and went to the JetLink counter.

Hi, my name is Lydia and I’m here to pick up my ticket. Here’s the cash and the ticket number.”

Ma’am, I am sorry but your ticket has been canceled and the flight is full.”

Yes, I had another “what did she just say?” moment. And this time, I definitely lost my cool. “Excuse me? What do you mean my ticket was canceled? I booked it two hours ago.”

Yes but you did not pay for it on time.”

No matter how I tried to explain that the JetLink representative had told me to pay for the ticket at the counter and how many times I gestured angrily at the “Customer Service” poster behind her, the poor woman obviously could not change the fact that the 8:30 PM flight was full. Completely defeated, I consented to the 9:30 PM flight, but made sure that I was on stand-by for 8:30.

At least I got on stand-by at 8:30 PM.

I had this small rising hope that perhaps the wost was over.

(Yeah, you know where this is going).

 

I arrived in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at 9:30 PM and proceeded to wait for contact from X’s business partner. But I could not reach X and his partner’s number wasn’t working either so, after two hours, I called my friend and he swung by and picked me up from the airport.

I had the wonderful opportunity to celebrate the Ethiopian New Year (did you know that it’s only 2004 according to the Ethiopian calendar?) in Nairobi and quickly became a fan of the “Ethiopian twist.” (Bear in mind, this was also on September 11 – more on that later).

After a night of dancing and relaxing with old friends and new, I went back to Mimosa Villa and finally slept – really slept – safe and secure and happy and relaxed.

 

ACT IV: RwandAir “Refund” Revisited

The next morning, I attempted to get in touch again with X and his business partner. After several rather unpleasant phone calls (in which I was accused of deception and fraud … yeah, I’m not even going to bother explaining), I once again had to negotiate the original “refunded” ticket with RwandAir.

Hello – yes, this is Lydia. Yes, I am calling again about my ticket. I am in Nairobi now – I would like you to transfer my original ticket and arrange for me a flight from Nairobi to Kigali this evening.”

Ma’am, it is not possible, the flights from Mombasa to Kigali cannot be – ”

No sir, I was never refunded for my flight, so RwandAir is responsible for arranging my ticket home. I came to Nairobi because I know there are more flights from here to Kigali. Please find a solution and call me back in ten minutes.”

After all of my efforts to be patient and sweet and relaxed for the past three days, my inner “good girl” had finally crumbled and I did not have the resolve to deal with anymore B.S. and unprofessionalism.

And voila – ten minutes later, I finally had a ticket back to Kigali for that same evening.

Gosh, you should have seen the smile on my face.

I spent my remaining hours in Nairobi driving around the city with my friend. I’ve missed Chi-town terribly, so you can imagine my giddy excitement at discovering one of the gigantic malls downtown! I ran around like a five-year-old taking the escalators up and down and sampling two gelato stands on different floors.

 

ACT V: Android Angst

Finally, it was time to leave and we started driving from downtown Nairobi to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

We were at a traffic light ten minutes away from the airport when I received an email from my dad about the pipe explosion in Nairobi. I started to respond and texted “Hi Daddy I am in Nairobi but I am safe – ”

All I saw were two huge black hands in my face and, before I could even scream, my phone was wrestled out of my hands.

 

Then I screamed. Oh yes, I screamed hard out of that window into the darkness.

 

My friend, when he finally realized what had happened from my spastic sputtering incoherence, turned the car around.

But, of course, it was too late.

 

The next five minutes were silent.

My friend called my phone. “He hung up.”

My friend called my phone again. “Damn, he already turned it off.”

I was nauseous.

All I could manage to say was: “Can you please close my window?”

We arrived at the airport.

My friend, well-acquainted with my business and traveling woes in Kenya thus far, did not know what to say.

I did not know what to say either. So, as with all other unfortunate events in my life, I did the only thing I could.

 

With the fearful strain that is on me night and day,

if I did not laugh I should die” ~Abraham Lincoln


Can you imagine I was only ten minutes away from finally going home? Just ten minutes?”

I laughed. I cried. I gasped. I giggled.

Dammit. Oh gosh, my phone. I was so close.”

My friend: “It’s really not very funny.”

Me: giggle, giggle. “Oh, dammit.”

 

ACT VI: (More) Airport (Mis)Adventures

 I used my friend’s phone to email my father and my friends in Kigali to arrange for a ride home from the airport.

My ticket number and confirmation were in my email account, so I needed my friend to come in with me. I figured he could just tell the security guards the truth, but he chose to lie about also “picking up his ticket at the counter.” We both made it in.

At this point, each step of getting closer to Kigali felt like a blessing. I was so relieved when I finally had a plane ticket in my hand. I said good bye to my friend, but right before I went through security I called him back and scrawled his number and my friends’ numbers on my right wrist. Then, I went through Customs and finally got to my gate.

Don’t ruminate,” I muttered to myself, “Work through, work through.”

I reached into my purse to make sure I had my ATM card for the next morning.

 

My wallet wasn’t there.

Ohhhhhhhh shit.”

 

When my phone was stolen, I didn’t just scream – I also jumped in my seat, and in the process, my wallet must have fallen to the car floor.

I begged so many people in the waiting room to lend me their phones to make one emergency call, but they all refused. Finally, a kind Ethiopian man handed me his phone and I called my friend.

Then, I dashed back to Customs where the two sweet Kenyan ladies sympathetically let me pass (but held my passport hostage) and I went back to security.

I explained the situation to the two guards, but the stockier one gruffly said, “You are the one with the friend that lied to us.”

I’m really very, very sorry. He shouldn’t have, but I explained to you why that happened,” I said. “He is coming back to the airport with my wallet and I need to go outside to wait for him.”

He breached security. He needs to pay.”

It was all I could do to not roll my eyes. “Seriously? You want me to pay you?” I shook my head, “I have to go outside.”

I went outside. My friend came by with my wallet and said, “I don’t even know what to say.”

I went back inside. “Listen,” I said to the two guards, “I am probably never coming back to Kenya again so you might as well take what I have.” As I opened my purse, the smaller guard said, “No, no, you already lost your phone Keep your money.”

I handed 400 shillings (~$4) to the stocky guard, who took it and grinned.

Then, I went back through Customs, where the two ladies returned my passport and expressed condolences again for what happened. “Thank you so much for your understanding,” I said, “But you should know I also just paid off your security.”

I left both women with shocked and upset faces and saw one of them head for security as I made my way back to the gate.

 

ACT VII:

 I finally made it back to Kigali twelve hours ago, and I am planning to stay in my room indefinitely to write and reflect on all that has happened.

Here are a couple vignettes that I am still processing:

 

When I was about to board my flight to Kigali, I saw a man who had just arrived from Uganda. He was a quiet and gentle-looking man with a bowed back and a gray beard. As cameras flashed and reporters surrounded him with microphones, I saw him smile and nod silently. Turns out this was Al-Amin Kimathi, a Kenyan human rights activist, who was detained on September 21, 2010 in connection with the July bomb attacks in Kampala, which killed 76 people who were watching the 2010 World Cup final. He had traveled to Uganda to observe the court hearing of six terror suspects charged and was subsequently detained for a year in pre-trial detention without any evidence provided against him. During that time, Ugandan prison authorities refused to allow Amnesty International delegates to access Kimathi on four occasions. (Article: http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/freedom-kenyan-activist-charged-over-uganda-bombing-2011-09-12)

My friend in Nairobi is a professional soccer player who has played with teams from countries all over the world (including DC United). Several months ago, he sustained a knee injury that has not only prevented him from playing but has also threatened his career. As I tried to process everything that happened to me this weekend, he told me: “The only thing that I truly love in life is football. I spent ten years of my life practicing and playing my sport and now I cannot do the thing I love most for ten months, maybe longer. But am I sitting in my room and complaining and being sad? No, because that’s life and I will not give up.” He also told me about his experience during the 1994 genocide. He was in the DRC at the time and only ten years old. “There were bodies everywhere. You know, sometimes people don’t even know what to do with them and they throw them on top of each other. Everywhere, dead bodies. That’s life – there are wars. All you can do is try to live and be safe and happy.”

This morning when I got up, I looked up the news about the pipe explosion in Nairobi. (Here is an article: http://allafrica.com/stories/201109121428.html)

You know what?

The explosion, which killed over one hundred people, happened only ten minutes (8 km) from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport where I was driving to yesterday. (Flashback to last summer when I was in downtown Kigali just half an hour before the bombings).

 

I am lucky to be alive.

My roommate just told me “Trusting people is good. But there is a line between trust and plain stupidity. I think you were flirting with that line.”

No,” I said to him, “I definitely crossed it.”

 

I am still not exactly sure to make of all of this. I know that I was an idiot. I know that I should have never made the trip to Kenya (even if I did secure the kitchen).

But in the midst of all the disaster and stress, at least one thing is very clear – I am so blessed. I am grateful, not just for the obvious – for security and financial resources (however limited they may be) and food and clothes and electricity, etc – but I am so especially grateful for my friends and my family.

 

This was a particularly big fish this time, God, but thank you for watching over my safety and helping me to learn in the process – I clearly still have a lot of growing to do. 

[That Awkward Heath Condition I Have] – PART II

Yes, I am back at King Faisal Hospital, and I am sitting in a waiting room.

It is 11:40 AM and my appointment with the specialist is at 12:15 PM. I’ve already watched the receptionist hand the nurse my file, and seen him place it in the doctor’s office.

So far, so good.

As I look at all the miserable people around me, especially the crying babies, I sigh and hope that I’ll be out of here by 1.

Thank goodness my parents never wanted me to go to medical school.

I really hate everything about hospitals – the gloomy faces, the shots, the pills, the white coats, the bad handwriting, the smell of disease – but unfortunately, when extreme discomfort starts to inhibit my ability to perform daily functions, I know I have to see a doctor.

I pass the time and try to drown out the crying and sniffling by listening to music (Stereo Love was on the the play-list, of course!), and I chat with everyone who is online – on facebook chat, on gchat, on whatsapp.

12:15 passes. Then 12:30.

That’s when I start noticing something fishy.

 

Every time the doctor’s door opens, someone in the waiting room makes a dash for the door and shuts it before you can even count to three. The woman sitting across from me has also been waiting for an hour and progressively inching closer to the door, chair-by-chair. So far, the two patients who have been in and out of the office were people who arrived after me.

Hmm.

1:00 PM passes.

The door opens. Another patient zooms for it and nearly collides with another, but makes it in first. The door closes.

The woman across from me sighs. But she’s moved closer by yet another chair.

Rather suspicious at this point, I stand up and walk back to the receptionist.

Hi ma’am. Hello. I’ve been waiting here for an hour and my appointment was at 12:15.”

Yes,” she says, “The doctor has your file. He will see patients as they come.”

Ah, so is it first come, first serve?

I know he has my file, but I’ve been waiting here for an hour and people who came after me have already seen the doctor.”

Please wait.”

She smiles at me, but her voice signals an end to the conversation. I hesitate. But then decide to go back to the waiting room.

1:30 passes. Another patient makes it in before the woman across from me even stands up.

2:00 passes. This time, the woman makes it.

But by this time, I am also really annoyed. I go back to the receptionist.

Hi ma’am – sorry to bother you again. But I’ve waited more than two hours now and I still haven’t seen the doctor. Is there no order or structure here?”

The doctor has your file – ”

I know that. But people who came after me keep going in the door. This is getting ridiculous.”

The receptionist can hear the anxiety in my voice, and she calls the nurse over. He frowns at me as he listens to her explain the situation in kinyarwanda. Then, he heads back toward the doctor’s office, and I follow, hoping that yes, it would finally be my turn.

He goes into the office and comes back out with all of the files. Immediately, the patients in the waiting room start clamoring at him in kinyarwanda and he silently begins to flip through the files and rearrange the order. Finally, after a couple minutes, he signals for the room to be quiet and starts reading out the names.

As each name is read, and each anxious patient sits back more comfortably in his or her seat, my heart begins to sink lower and lower as he reaches the end of the pile.

No, it couldn’t be possible. I’ve already complained to him several times in the past two hours.

But he reaches the last file, and looks at me with a smirk, “Lydia.”

What?” I burst out, “Now, I’m last? Are you serious?”

He seems stunned at first by my reaction, but then starts laughing at me. Then, all the patients in the room start to laugh.

Unable to handle the situation anymore, I grab all my things and leave the waiting room.

I break down as I make my way back into the lobby and out of the hospital doors.

 

 

I don't have a picture but this is what my face would have looked like if I were a puppy.

Yes, I left King Faisal Hospital in tears.

 

It wasn’t just this incident that finally pushed me over the edge. It was everything – the failed project, the illness, the disappointment, the homesickness – all of a sudden everything just compounded and culminated with this: public humiliation.

It was just too much.

But once again, I have to thank the angels in my life.

Far, far away in a still-dark home in Pennsylvania, someone answered my call and groggily listened to my sobbing and hysterics. And far, far away on the other side of the world in Beijing, another friend called me just as he was about to board a flight and listened to more sobbing and hysterics.

Call out the big guns,” said my friend in Philly.

So I dialed the number – the same number that got me research clearance to all of Rwanda’s primary schools, the same number that cut through all of the red tape at the Ministry of Education and jeopardized a secretary’s job last summer.

I called my friend in government.

And boy was he furious.

In less than twenty minutes, I had a new appointment at the same hospital. So I went back to King Faisal Hospital, my eyes still red and swollen from crying, and called the contact that my friend gave me.

Almost immediately, a huge man in a military uniform showed up and escorted me to the CEO’s office. There, he went directly to the fridge and offered me drinks and listened as I explained my story.

He shook his head. “That is bad. Very bad. So sorry.”

The door opened and the CEO stepped in. Then, the door opened again, and the Head of Nurses and the doctor I was supposed to have seen also entered.

One by one, they apologized profusely to me and gave me their business cards. They claimed that it had all just been a “miscommunication” and that the nurse and receptionist did not feel comfortable enough with English to explain to me that the doctor sees emergency cases in between appointments, so appointments often get pushed back.

Of course, I knew they were just giving me an excuse. It was very clear that there was no system in place to track appointment times and patient visits.

Still, I was reminded once again about how important connections are in Rwanda. Here, you are only worth so much time and attention as how important and well-connected you are in society.

Because of my friend, I am now on some sort of “VIP list” at King Faisal Hospital, and the CEO continually reminded me to call him directly next time if I feel ill.

As for my medical “condition” – The doctor ultrasounded me three times (I got to see my liver, kidneys, and spleen! – oh, and I also confirmed that I am not pregnant … ) and determined that, very likely due to extreme stress, my organs had started to malfunction. And the doctor decided to prescribe for me – wait for this –

 

Alpha blockers (usually prescribed to men with prostate cancer).

 

Do you ever feel like sometimes life is some sort of twisted comedy where everything falls apart but things become so progressively ridiculous that all you can do is laugh?

After having spent an entire day at the hospital, it felt so good to finally leave and breathe fresh air and eat brochettes and fries with friends at Chez Lando.

Of course, I had no idea during dinner that I would end up spending the next four days in bed with a bad cold/flu (probably due to the extreme stress from the entire ordeal). But at least this made for a good story, huh?

Back up and smelling the flowers!

 

Family and friends, just wanted to let you know that I am feeling MUCH better now — and if I ever have the slightest headache or cold, I know who to call!

Thank you so much to my two angels.

And thank you all for the many prayers and all the love and support you’ve given me throughout this journey.

 

Mama ZuZu, Isabelle Kamariza, X, & Me

PART I

It all started with Mama ZuZu.

Here is a woman whose smile never stops.

Mama ZuZu is thirty-eight years old, unemployed, and a mother of eight. She handles the affairs of her household, regularly attends church, and prepares meals for her children. However, starting two years ago, Mama ZuZu also began to incorporate regular trips to the local hospital in her schedule. At first, she gave from what was left over – the unfinished porridge from her own table went directly to feed the stomachs of hungry hospital patients. Mama ZuZu trusted in the Lord’s provision and gave from her limited means knowing that God would bless her even more abundantly in return. But over time, each visit and each newly adopted patient began to increasingly demonstrate the magnitude and urgency of the need.

 

[Brief tangent]


Two weeks ago, August 26, I attended a forum by the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace (IRDP) titled:

The state of peace in Rwanda as perceived by Rwandans:17 years after the genocide against the Tutsi

At this forum, IRDP examined the achievements and challenges Rwanda faces in rebuilding sustainable peace and presented the conclusions and recommendations from its research.

It focused on three important categories: good governance, social cohesion, and economic prosperity. 

 

“A society which does not focus its future on economic strategies which meet the needs of its citizens in such a way that there is justice in the distribution of wealth and entrepreneurship fails in its effort to build sustainable peace.” (IRDP)

 

Since 1994, the Rwandan government has taken significant strides to improve the standard of living for its citizens. Among these initiatives is “Mutuelles de Sante” — universal health insurance coverage implemented by the Ministry of Health to ensure access to quality healthcare for every Rwandan.

Depending on income and financial means, each Rwandan belongs in a category in which he or she contributes between RWF1000 ($2) and RWF7000 ($12) a year, which covers the minimum package of services provided.

IRDP claims that citizens believe “Mutuelles de Sante” is a good policy that contributes to the social welfare. However, the Ministry of Health’s decision to increase annual contributions in July 2011 has faced great backlash considering the low income of the majority of citizens.

From 1995 to 2010, the annual income per capita has increased 192% from 185,6 USD to 541 USD. While the figure is encouraging, it does not reveal the real standard of living of the people. As IRDP says, “The average does not help to measure the inequalities.”

In other words, even though the standard of living may have risen dramatically for some, this does not mean the gap has decreased between the poor and the rich.

As such, poverty continues to inhibit sustainable peace, and IRDP recommends the implementation of mechanisms that “monitor the effectiveness of poverty reduction programmes and their impact on the living conditions of vulnerable populations.”

Initiatives such as “Mutuelles de Sante” guide Rwanda toward peace. But even these initiatives continue to have flaws that contribute to the wide (and growing) disparities in wealth which make it dificult for Rwanda to achieve sustainable peace.

 

ALSO: There is one thing IRDP overlooked with regard to “Mutuelles de Sante”:

Hospitals do not provide food to patients.

Although public hospitals do have private restaurants where patients can purchase food at roughly RWF500 (~$1) per meal, many patients ultimately rely on the care and support of friends and relatives for daily sustenance. However, for the most vulnerable patients who come from outside of Kigali and can barely afford to even pay the RWF1000 per year for health insurance, meals becomes a near impossibility.

As a result, many patients receive medical treatment but then suffer from hunger, which inevitably worsens their condition. Add to this the already overwhelmed and overcrowded public hospitals where much needed space and beds are occupied by patients who cannot pay their medical bills, patients whose conditions are prolonged due to hunger or unavailable medication, and patients who have recovered but cannot even afford the cost of transportation to return home.

This became Mama Zuzu’s mission – to feed the hungry and to care for the vulnerable in Kigali’s public hospitals.

But she could not do it alone.

 

PART II

Bring in Isabelle Kamariza.

Here is a young woman whose heart and generosity have no limits.

Two years ago, Isabelle was attending a law school in Belgium and she was taking the train back home when she saw something.

She saw a man huddled in the corner of the train dressed in shabby clothing, his unwashed hair draped over bony knees hugged to his chest.

But that was not all she saw.

She turned around and looked at the other passengers on the train – women dressed in the latest styles from the most fashionable boutiques, businessmen on their blackberries and iphones, teenagers flirting and teetering on sky-high heels, students like herself with heavy backpacks filled with laptops and books.

She saw people who had been conditioned not to see – not to see the man in the corner, not to see poverty and hunger, not to see human misery even when it was sitting right in front of them.

She saw herself.

 

She saw her own discomfort and guilt and shame. And she felt herself turning away, just like all the others – but then she stopped, and wondered why.

That day launched Isabelle’s first organization – a program that started with a dozen home-made bagged meals and evolved into a widespread mission to feed the homeless and the hungry on Belgium’s streets and subways. Her compassion and generosity instigated a movement among Belgium’s youth to see and address the issues within their own communities.

 

Last year, Isabelle’s parents asked her to come home for a brief vacation. Although she was reluctant to leave her work in Belgium, Isabelle agreed to return to Rwanda.

She met Mama ZuZu (whose real name is Donatila Mukashalangabo) at church. As they were praying together, Isabelle prayed – as she always did – for the “sick, and the poor, and the hungry.”

But mid-prayer, Mama ZuZu interrupted and said: “Do not pray for the sick and the poor and the hungry. Meet them, know them, and pray with them.”

Mama ZuZu took Isabelle to CHUK. There, Isabelle saw patients who were stranded at the hospital because they could not afford to pay their bills. She met the sick and the poor and the hungry, and she prayed with them.

There were sick people outside, mostly children and women; some of them had spent two weeks outside without treatment and it was raining,” says Isabelle, “I asked myself, how can we people go back and sleep in our comfortable beds on a soft mattress and just chill out, wake up and spend Rwf1000 for a coke when there are all these sick people sleeping in the cold, right in our neighborhoods?”

Using her own resources and connections, Isabelle, then 25, began to raise money and ask for food donations.

I began begging people to help. I would go to mama and say ‘Please give me 5000 francs and I will do this… please give me milk and I will do this…’and I begun like that,” Isabelle said. Isabelle shared her concerns with the Rotaract Club Rwanda, which contributed Rwf160,000 and released several patients from CHUK hospital in March 2010.

Isabelle never left.

With just one more year remaining of law school in Belgium, Isabelle chose to remain in Rwanda and commit herself full-time to addressing hunger and poverty in Kigali’s public hospitals. Mama ZuZu’s heart coupled with Isabelle’s passion and leadership gave birth to “Solid’Africa” in Fall 2010 – a youth-driven non-profit organization dedicated to serving the most vulnerable patients in public health facilities through providing food, medication, basic sanitation, and the means to return home.

Over time, Mama ZuZu’s initial family of eight has steadily increased to a still-growing family of over three hundred.

 

People need to know that they do not have to give a million to make a difference in people’s lives…anything small can make a huge difference,” says Isabelle.

 

 

PART III

So how do I fit in?

For those of you who follow my blog, you will remember that I am supposed to be developing a program in Kigali that pairs students with part-time business internships.

 

I am not doing that.

 

It would take too long to go into detail – but suffice it to say that this has been one of the most difficult months of my life.

My original project did not happen for a number of reasons.

For one thing, my most important contact and project partner decided to leave the project, but did not inform me until two weeks after I had already arrived in Kigali. Then, I learned that the fortunes of the Rwanda Multi-Learning Centre (where I taught last summer) had changed, and now more and more students are able to attend universities through external funding – which is wonderful news, but also means that my project has significantly less import and urgency than before.

So here I was in Kigali with two weeks already wasted and unsure of what to do. I felt guilty for wasting time and grant money, I felt shame for my inadequacy and apparent failure, and I felt disappointment for not having a back-up plan and for trusting so naively that things would work out.

And then, in the midst of the stress and anxiety, I got very sick and spent two days in the hospital.

In almost every respect – physically, mentally, emotionally, and even financially – I felt I had reached my limits.

At the IRDP forum, IRDP specified that, in addition to poverty, challenges in education and employment (my original focus) remain “threats to peace.” However, without my original partner organization and project partner, I already had to start from scratch and I was no longer certain whether starting anew with another school would be the best approach.

But somehow, some way, things tend to work out. It turns out my roommate was one of Solid’Africa’s first members, and when he heard about my frustration and struggle to design a new project – he immediately pushed me to attend one of Solid’Africa’s weekly meetings.

At this point, I was extremely paranoid and disillusioned about working with others, and I was worried that I would not find people as equally invested or committed to whatever issue I chose to tackle.

Fortunately, Isabelle and the members of Solid’Africa convinced me otherwise.

At the meeting, I found a large and growing number of dedicated individuals who had all, in some way, committed to the cause. Some offered the services of their own businesses, others dedicated their skills in marketing and advertising, others used their connections to secure audiences with the President and important political figures at forums and conferences, and still others donated time and money to serving food to hospital patients. Even though Solid’Africa only officially launched in April 2011, they have a rapidly growing membership among Rwanda’s youth, and have also started quite the fashion trend with their popular t-shirts!






Their mission statement: Solid Africa is a mindset and a movement of people that believe that it is possible to channel individual efforts towards helping those in need; and that through a strong social structure, we can all help solve most social constraints in public hospitals.

I listened to Solid’Africa’s current projects and spoke with Isabelle and the other central leaders about their ideas and future projections for Solid’Africa. Currently, Solid’Africa has four main projects:

 

Gemura Food For All: Gemura” means “to bring food [to someone who needs it]” in kinyarwanda. This is Solid’Africa’s original and most developed project – to ensure food delivery to hospital patients. Solid’Africa serves breakfast to 300 patients at CHUK (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Kigali) every day, and lunch every Monday (“Solid’Monday”) and every last Sunday of the month (“Solid’Sunday”).

Kiza – Medicine For All:Kiza” means “to heal.” This project aims to provide patients with medication that is unavailable (often because it is too expensive) in public health facilities.

Sukura – Hygiene and Well-Being: Sukura” means “to clean something [hygiene].” This project focuses on ensuring that patients have basic sanitary supplies: plastic cups, plastic plates,tooth brush, tooth paste, toilet paper, female pads, etc.

Gombora – Hospital Release and Transportation:Gombora” means “hospital release and transportation.” Solid’Africa covers the cost for treated patients to return home.

 

 

Solid’Africa’s biggest and most pressing goal is to build a “Gemura Kitchen” – or, essentially, the FIRST SOUP KITCHEN IN RWANDA dedicated to serving the most vulnerable patients in hospitals.

Right now, all of the food is cooked in two volunteer kitchens of limited capacities which inhibit maximal food production. In order to reach their goal of providing two meals every day to 700-1000 vulnerable patients in Kigali’s public hospitals, Solid’Africa needs a kitchen with the capacity to cook enough food. So far, the land has already been secured and building materials donated; now, all that is left is paperwork and construction.

 

Doesn’t Solid’Africa sound perfect? Here was a dedicated group tackling an important and urgent issue. I could not have found a better partner organization to work with.

However, I had one major concern.

 

Sustainability.

 

Currently, two Solid’Africa members provide all of the milk and there is one sponsor who supplies all of the maize. The structure of Solid’Africa and its planned kitchen rely entirely on donations – which may be fine for the long run, but on any given day, something could happen and the food for the patients could be jeopardized.

In addition, I posed this question to Solid’Africa: “Guaranteeing sustainability for Solid’Africa is one thing, but how do you ensure a sustainable reality for the patients that you are serving?”

I proposed to complement food aid with educational programs that tap into Solid’Africa’s volunteer base to help hospital patients resume their lives after treatment – for instance, a program that works with patients to gain technical skills, write their CVs, apply for jobs, learn English, etc. Vocational learning, especially, would align with IRDP’s recommendations to address unemployment, and specifically the “lack of qualified technicians on the labour market.” 

Another possibility would be to start an educational campaign in secondary schools and universities to engage and mobilize more youth in the issues within their communities. This latter project has made more headway, and I am overseeing the launch of a “Solid’Africa Honor Society” that will model our American “National Honor Society” which selects the best and the brightest high school students and requires 50 hours of community service work. The hope is that changing community service from a punishment to a privilege and duty will help to create a movement that shifts mentalities.

However, one of the members of Solid’Africa put it best: “Educational programs are wonderful and important, but when we cannot even address the hunger, our first priority must be to serve food. People need to eat before they can learn.”

 

 

PART IV

With questions of sustainability on my mind, I spent the next two weeks familiarizing myself with Solid’Africa. I started by editing all of their documents and attending all of their general and committee meetings, then gradually moving up to become their newly appointed secretary and designing an internal structure for the organization. I was moved by the energy and commitment of the members, but also aware of the lack of structure and cohesion within the group. I went to CHUK and met some of the patients; when it was time to serve lunch, I was dismayed by the chaos and disorder, and worked afterward with one of Solid’Africa’s leaders to come up with a more efficient and structured procedure (think assembly line, instead of patients crowding in toward the food and shoving bowls toward us).

But still, I had not found an answer to sustainability.

At first, I suggested that they could partner with organizations that focused solely on food aid, or perhaps apply for external funding to give them an extra financial cushion. However, I admire the group’s insistence on Solid’Africa’s identity as a “mind-set” – and their push to change mentalities and tap the resources of the community to directly channel individual efforts toward social issues.

“We want to instill into Rwandans the desire to help the most vulnerable people in our communities without involving foreign assistance,” says Patrick, a Solid’Africa leader.

Solid’Africa’s goal is to spread their mind-set and start a movement in Kigali, because they recognize that changed mentalities within the community are much more powerful and long-standing than external funding and support. After two years, they hope that their efforts will lead to advocacy and the Rwandan government will begin to require public hospitals to serve food to patients.

As I continued to try to find my place in Solid’Africa and figure out a project that would ensure sustainability, I also began to tell more and more people about Solid’Africa.

 

Bring in X.

X is a fifty-four year old business man who recently signed a $142 million contract with the Rwandan Development Bank to build 1000 houses in Kigali.

He is one of those people who has the rare problem of having more money than he knows how to use.

X made his fortune long ago in construction and built up a business empire that spanned continents and led him to accumulate a net worth of over $200 million (which apparently includes two islands). He retired ten years ago, but apparently he and his wife started quarreling when they were cooped up in their vacation resort and she told him to go back to work.

So he did.

He tells me that business is like playing chess. “You win, or I win. I am happy if I win. You are happy if you win. But the result does not change anything for either of us.”

Clearly, X is not in business for the money. (Otherwise, I think $142 million certainly constitutes a significant “change” for whoever loses it).

X is in business because he enjoys the feeling of success and accomplishment – like winning a chess game.

When I told him about my “business” in Rwanda and my struggle to find a sustainable answer to Solid’Africa, he chuckled.

Darling,” he said, “I like you. You have a clean heart. You want to help. But you need to think about yourself – you need to think about your future. I can build you a kitchen – that is no problem. But what about you? You need to think about yourself before you think about others.”

I explained that I was not in Rwanda to make a profit, and that I have more than enough to sustain myself (especially once Fulbright funding arrives in December). My goal here is to make a difference – and a sustainable one.

However, X insisted: “If you want to make a difference, you need to start your own business. Don’t work with Solid’Africa. Start your own and donate 10% to Solid’Africa or the hospitals, and invest the rest to build your own future.”

It turns out X already had a business plan that fit perfectly with Solid’Africa and my questions of sustainability. He just hadn’t implemented it yet because he didn’t have a project manager to oversee it.

Ta-da.

Bring in … ME!

 

So, dear Readers, my project has transformed from a program that unites students with business internships to…

*Drum roll*

 

BUILDING A CHICKEN FARM

 

Yes, I am building a chicken farm.

We have the land. We have the construction company. The hatching machine for 200,000 eggs is on its way from China, and we are importing the eggs from either Turkey or Israel.

Why a chicken farm?

Because chicken is high in demand in Rwanda but scarce and poor in quality. If you go to any restaurant in Kigali, steak costs significantly less than chicken (which is FANTASTIC, in my opinion, because I love steak – but also means that people here WANT chicken) and the chicken that is served is dry and stringy. Restaurants that choose not to use the local chicken often have to obtain their chicken from external suppliers.

Thus, from a business perspective, constructing a chicken farm in Rwanda is a very good investment. And I seem to have found the person who has the resources and experience to do it! Now, all that is left for me to do is learn, implement, and eventually manage.

Right now, the plan is for X to first make the arrangements to build a large-scale chicken farm in Mombasa, Kenya (where most of his business is based), and I will watch and observe. Then, we will return to Rwanda and I will manage the construction of a smaller chicken farm in Kigali.

Our hope is that the farm will be constructed by the end of September. It takes 40 days for eggs to hatch, so we should be in business by November. Solid’Africa’s Gemura Kitchen will probably not be completed until December or January, but by then, I should have the means to start supplying chicken in a sustainable manner and use the profit from the business to fuel other sustainable ventures that can also support the provision of food to the hospitals.

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I Can’t Pee – PART I

There are some things in life that I know I take for granted.

Like electricity. Or shelter. Or running water. Or access to food. Even hearing and sight. Even my new smart phone.

But until now, I have never really appreciated my ability to use the bathroom.

Yes, I am writing to you about a rather awkward problem – a problem that has escalated to the point of a visit to the emergency room at King Faisal Hospital this afternoon.

You have to admit, it’s kind of funny.

I can’t pee.

(Tmi?)

 

Last week, I went to a sketchy neighborhood clinic to get tested for malaria. I had slept for almost three days straight and, in addition to extreme fatigue, I had perpetual nausea, muscle pain, and sweating. The doctor took my temperature (he didn’t take my blood pressure, no questions about chronic illness, allergies to medicine, etc) and then said he would test me for malaria.

I’m one of those people that really hates needles and I need a period of mental preparation before I am okay with getting a shot.

So I asked the doctor, “Are you going to give me a shot? Are you going to test for malaria with a shot?”

He completely ignored me.

Then, all of a sudden he grabbed my hand – immediately, I realized the situation and started resisting and pulling back.

It is fine, it is fine,” he insisted, and then swiftly pricked my finger.

I was indignant. And quite miffed.

 

The good news: I don’t have malaria.

The bad news: The doctor told me I had a cold.

Why it is bad news: I definitely do not have a cold.

 

The problem has since gotten worse.

Last week, I had to wait ten minutes. Yesterday, I waited over half an hour. At first, I thought that this was just some weird highly embarrassing temporary issue, but it has gotten ridiculous to the point that I went to the King Faisal Hospital today. (I decided to go to a privately run and recognized hospital as opposed to another sketchy health clinic).

After two hours of waiting in line and sitting in waiting rooms, I finally saw the doctor.

Doctor: “So, what exactly is the problem?”

Me: “I can’t pee.”

 

 

Thirty minutes later, I left the hospital. This particular doctor could not draw any conclusions, so I have an appointment with a specialist on Thursday morning.

Maybe I have a parasite? Or one of those amoeba things?

I have no clue. But for all you people out there who use the bathroom and never think twice about it, let me tell you: it is a privilege.

Well, that isn’t exactly what I want you to take away.

But I do hope that you appreciate the many comforts around you and recognize the standard of living that you take for granted.

For instance, what would life be like without reliable internet? Or brown sugar? Or hot water?

Let me tell you.

It has been terribly frustrating to not be able to check my email from home. Each broken gchat conversation and nearly-impossible skype video call has coincided with an increase in homesickness. I miss cookies and brownies and moist chocolate cake and pastries – there is no brown sugar here, so all the pastries are dry and flaky. I also recently discovered that the Rwamagana School of Nursing (where I will be teaching English through the Fulbright in January) does not have hot water. I tried to take a cold shower the other day – just to prep, you know – and I couldn’t do it.

Even as I read this over, I am embarrassed by how pathetic I am.

More and more, I am realizing the things that I take for granted. Even with my privileged standard of living in Kigali, I am still experiencing the disparities between my life here and life in the States.

But it is experiences like these that teach me humility and help me to have a clearer perspective of life without all of its fluffy layers and crutches.

I may be a powerhouse back at home, but I am only just a baby here.

Without control of even the most basic functions (literally), I am slowly learning to crawl without support and hope that soon I will also be able to walk.

Please pray for a smooth and speedy recovery!

 

 

(I hope this made you laugh 🙂 )

 

 

Colliding Worlds – PART II: How I Met President Kagame

Yes, that is His Excellency President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.

Yes, that is Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Yes, that is me standing in the left corner grinning like a five-year-old child.

 

Now, if anything ever happens to me in Rwanda, all I have to do is pull out this picture and say, “See, President Kagame and I are best friends!”

(Just kidding).

(But not really).

 

Here’s the story of how it all happened.

 

Saturday, June 11, 11:00 AM – I am at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at 151 East Wacker Drive, downtown Chicago. The woman standing in front of me is scrutinizing my camera and she raises it to take a close-up of my face. Then, she turns my cell phone off and on and glares at me suspiciously when I roll my eyes.

I forgot how crazy the President’s security staff is – especially about technology – and I have a cell phone, camera, and laptop in my bag. The woman empties my entire purse onto the security belt and begins to peruse its contents. She finds my nail clipper and immediately starts waving it angrily at my face.

Really? A nail clipper? You think I am going to attack the President with a nail clipper?

She throws it into a pile of other confiscated objects and then grunts for me to move on. I grab my purse, shove everything back inside, and join B, Arthur, and Allan in the conference room.

There, all of the preparations for the President’s arrival are going through a final check. I notice that the banner has been changed from yesterday and the podium repositioned. Now, the two screens read simply: “RWANDA DAY 2011 – AGACIRO.” B is busy ushering people into one of the smaller meeting rooms, while Allan paces back and forth on the scarlet carpet, and Arthur sets up his video equipment.

Lydia!” Allan says when he sees me, already stretching out his arms for a hug. “How are you? Did you get your press badge yet?”

Thank goodness for friends like Allan (friends who know people who know people who know people)! Minutes later, I have my press badge and official clearance to take photos and footage of the event.

Smiles.

I should probably give you some context.

 

 

This is Rwanda Day 2011 in Chicago – a weekend conference organized by the Rwandan government to bring together thousands of Rwandans across the United States and Canada to celebrate Rwanda’s achievements and Vision 2020, and facilitate “social, communal, and business relationships between the Rwandan Diaspora, friends of Rwanda, and the Rwandan business community.” [According to www.rwandaday.org]

The day before, the conference featured two panels – the first discussed “Connecting Opportunities, Creating Value for Rwandans,” and the second discussed “Investing in Rwanda’s Youth, Creating Solutions for the Future.”

Both panels were well-attended, but today’s event was going to be packed. Even the air felt different – I could taste the buzz and nervous excitement, it was almost as if even the walls and light fixtures were shimmering and whispering, “The President is coming! The President is coming!”

I go back into the conference room and help the staff put Rwandan flags on all of the chairs. Then, I select my seat by the stage and test the camera.

Everything was ready.

The room begins to fill at around 2:00 PM. The event opens with a documentary “Agaciro” created by my very talented friend, Allan. [You can view the documentary on Youtube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oBN_qmlQMU]

Then, at 4:00 PM, HE arrives.

 

Following the cues of all the “real” press people, I rush to the front and start madly snapping pictures.

But then he starts getting closer. And closer.

Conflicted, I decide to put down my camera, and then – YES.

I TOUCH HIS HAND!!!!

Elated that I had just accomplished the feat of a lifetime, I raise my camera  back again and resume snapping pictures, but all the while with a huge grin on my face. I can’t wait to tell my parents: I JUST TOUCHED A PRESIDENT’S HAND.

Kagame ascends the stage amidst rapturous applause, and is immediately greeted with a children’s choir and a traditional dance performance.

Reverend Jesse Jackson introduces the President (with, as it turns out, an impromptu speech). Then, the Man himself takes the podium.

 

 

I wish I had a transcript of his speech.

It was so eloquent and given with such heartfelt sincerity. President Kagame expressed so much hope for the country’s future and for the new generation; he also addressed the inevitable dissent and criticism that would be directed toward his presence. As it turns out, there was a protest occurring just outside of Hyatt, led by none other than the (supposed) hero of Hollywood’s Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina. But the focus of the President’s speech was on the people, the economic progress, and the country’s plans for the future.

As I listen to the translated proceedings, I walk around the room snapping pictures of the audience, the performances, the stage. And at one point, when I lower my camera to review the photos, I see this:

I look up from my camera and Reverend Jackson is still beckoning for me(?) to go over to the side of the stage. I look behind me, no one else is looking in his direction, then turn around and point at myself. He nods.

I walk over to the side of the stage.

Hi. I’ve been seeing you running around everywhere taking pictures,” he says, “Who are you here with? Do you have a card?”

Taken aback, I quickly explain that I am just a student (I don’t tell him about how I got my press badge), and briefly narrate my “connection to Rwanda.”

Listen, the President is coming off the stage in five minutes. Wait here. I want to personally introduce him to you.”

I swear my heart stopped beating. Or else, it started beating so fast I couldn’t process what was happening anymore.

DID JESSE JACKSON REALLY JUST TELL ME HE WAS GOING TO INTRODUCE ME TO PRESIDENT KAGAME???

And five minutes later, it happened.

 

I shake the President’s hand – for REAL this time – and tell him about my two previous trips and my plans to return to Rwanda in the summer with a project.

With me is Kellogg professor, Michelle Buck, whom I had invited to the conference. Michelle had just flown in from a conference in Boston, and had another flight to Florida that evening, but she made a last minute decision to stop in Chicago just for Rwanda Day. Michelle is planning to teach courses on Rwanda at Kellogg and also looking into the possibility of developing a team to visit Rwanda in the spring.

Several photos later, the President leaves the conference.

 

Fortunately, only Arthur and PD had to witness my bouncing-squealing-oh-my-gosh-that-did-not-just-happen-excitement.

But isn’t that amazing?

Who would have thought that less than a year after my first trip to Rwanda, I would get to meet the President?

None of this – meeting Kagame, attending the TriBeCa Film Festival, going on a second trip to Rwanda – could have happened without the initial funding from the Provost’s Office through the Immersion Experience Grant [now known as the Undergraduate Engagement Grant]. 

I know months have already passed since June, but I wanted to tell you about all the amazing opportunities that have come my way because of that one initial opportunity.

 

So – THANK YOU. I can’t wait to see what other opportunities and adventures lie ahead.

 

 

 

Colliding Worlds – PART I: Community & Commemoration


Worlds tend to collide in the most interesting ways.

Saturday, May 14, 3:00 AM – I am downtown in the Loop and just about to take the Red line home when I receive a phone call from my friend.

What? Wait – wait a second, I’m getting off the train. Excuse me. Sorry. Just a sec, it’s really loud.”

I push my way back onto the platform just as the doors close and I watch my train barrel past me. This had better be good.

Hey. Hey B, you still there? What’s up?”

My friend is calling from Indiana and she invites me to spend the weekend. Apparently, some of her relatives have just flown in from Rwanda – among them, an aunt who was particularly kind and hospitable to me on both my past trips there.

The train leaves at 8:30 tomorrow morning?” I glance at my watch. 3:05 AM. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll be there. I’ll let you know when I get on the train. Thanks so much. Yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow, B. Bye.”

Five and a half hours later – I get to the station at 8:25 AM and barely make it onto the train just as the doors close and the train starts moving forward. I smile – but the smile is short-lived. The conductor tells me that the train doesn’t stop at South Bend on the weekends. My friend: “What? Are you still on the train? Shit, you have to get off that train!”

One hour later, I am crammed in the back of a small car with three Rwandan boys who do not speak English, and I smile politely at their parents as I balance a skinny vanilla latte on my right knee.

Three awkward carpool hours later, we finally arrive in South Bend, Indiana.

I am so relieved to get out of the car and tell B all about my traveling mishaps. But the moment I step inside the house, I am immediately whisked away to prepare hundreds of party favors; and then someone hands me a Rwandan dress and starts insisting that I change into it. People are running about the house in formal Rwandan garb, speaking in a rapid combination of Kinyarwanda and French.

And B? She is nowhere to be seen.

Then, I am back in a car – and, thank goodness, B is there too! – but we don’t have time to talk, because we need to assemble pictures into frames. We arrive at a church and Rwandan women in flowing robes impatiently usher us into file; they hand B a candle and me a drum.

Music starts playing, and then it dawns on me: I am part of a ceremony.



I follow a procession of Rwandan women single-file into the sanctuary, and set my drum next to B’s candle on a small stand in the center. A priest begins the ceremony with several hymns and Bible readings, followed by communion (which I am not allowed to take because I am not Catholic…). As B translates some of the speeches and prayers for me, I gradually realize the purpose of the ceremony: to commemorate loved ones who passed away during the 1994 genocide.

Even after all the exposure I’ve had to Rwanda’s history and different Rwandan communities, I am still always moved by the sense of strength amidst so much loss. Everyone in the sanctuary has lost somebody – some have even lost their entire families. But still they gather every year to support one another and remember their loved ones.

 The church ceremony concludes with a traditional dance by young Rwandan girls. Then, once again, B and I are whisked away to yet another building and yet another ceremony.

After a small reception, I am given a candle and told to stand behind B and two other girls also bearing candles. One of the coordinators of the events instructs me on how to walk (it’s the wedding procession two-step) and I figure I am simply walking in another procession and placing my candle at the stage. The music starts and the girls in front of me move forward as I mentally practice my steps.

Then, I hear a voice inside say: “And now, young Rwandan girls and boys will come to the stage with candles for a moment of silence.”

Oh boy.

I can feel my cheeks burning as I follow B into the dark auditorium. I see the rows of solemn faces looking up at the stage, and desperately wish that my candle would shine less brightly on my so-obviously-not-Rwandan face.

What are these people going to think when they see me? I wonder. How are they going to react to a random Asian girl on stage – someone who is holding a candle in memory of their loved ones but so clearly has no tie to their experiences, someone who cannot possibly understand their loss?

I reach the stage. 

The music stops and I hold my breath as the room fills with silence.

At first, I keep my eyes closed. I try not to swallow and I focus intently on keeping my candle steady.

But then, I venture a peek.

In the darkness, I see a sea of uplifted faces, faces connected to invisible bodies that sway to the same pulse. Rolling tears and joined hands harmonize with the movement, and in the silence, I hear a sweet, sweet emerging melody. The gentle hum of the community saturates the silence and as it overflows, I feel its embrace. All of the history, all of the pain, all of the loss, all of the tragedy wraps around me – it overwhelms me and I feel my heart collapsing beneath its weight.

But then somewhere in the room, a child laughs.

The community chuckles at the sound, and all of a sudden, I feel a quiet warmth and I hear the ascending notes of hope and comfort and healing. The community reaches for me; it lifts me up to a new tune, a new melody that rises from the depths and kisses the sun-drenched cheeks of its new generation. We are here for you. We love you. We won’t ever let this happen to you. Never again.

The music returns, and the lights return to the auditorium.

As I follow B and the other girls off of the stage, I feel an odd sensation of peace and calm and – disconnect?

The community around me carries a strength and glue I have never experienced. I think of my estrangement from my own Taiwanese roots. What does it take to create a community like this? What are the necessary building blocks, the unifying experiences that bind people together so tightly and so desperately?

And where do I fit in?

That is the question perpetually on my mind these days. I am back in Rwanda once again and I want to make a difference. What are the skills and resources that I bring to the table? What can I contribute? What can I share?

I am so grateful for all the opportunities this community has already given me.

But now, it is time for me to find my place within it and discover what I can give back  in return.

It’s not “Good bye,” It’s “I’ll see you later”

I often tell myself and reassure others that the world is small. I like to talk about colliding worlds, intersecting lives, fused cultures and interests. “Don’t say good bye,” I’ll say to my tearing friends, “Stop crying. Stop that right now. If we really want to see each other again, we can and we will. Okay now seriously, stop it.”

I grew up in a college town where people came in and out of my life faster than the seasons. Every August, Ithaca’s population doubles with the entrance of new Cornell and Ithaca College students; every May, the population shrinks back in half and the bustling college towns become abandoned ghost towns. I learned not to get attached to the people around me because chances were, they would soon leave my life in a matter of three or four years. Saying “good bye” became an annual routine that involved glitter glue, card-stock, calligraphy pens, and photo collages. I coordinated the production and distribution of “farewell and thank you” cards to graduating college seniors and then watched others cry and embrace and tried to weasel a couple tears out of my own eyes to not look out of place. 

When I entered college, I brought with me a potted plant. Bred on Ithacan soil, this two-year-old sapling became the basis for my gradual trust in the fertility of the new Chicagoan soil. I began to cautiously plant other seeds and, for a while, everything seemed to go well – new leaves began to unfurl, buds emerged beneath the foliage. I sat beneath the tree and enjoyed its shade for another two years as I tended the seedlings around it.

My first year of college increased my faith in relationships and in humanity. My second year of college destroyed both.

 

My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Jeremiah 2:13

 

Halfway into college, my tree suddenly withered overnight. And as I grieved and tried to understand its loss, I failed to notice the poison that had begun to spread among the others. Even the most resilient plants fell away and shriveled despite my desperate attempts to nurture them back to life. In the aftermath, I was left with only the two youngest seedlings out of the several dozen. When I returned to examine the remains of my tree, I saw how the mysterious disease had severed its roots long before it died, a disease that was aided by the activity of one ambitious termite. I realized that my complete trust, dependence, and love for the tree had also blinded me to its ailment.

I stopped caring. I sat beneath the dead branches and spent my days grumbling about the scorching sunlight. “The risks aren’t worth the benefits,” I would complain when others asked me why I refused to garden, “Look at what happened to my first investment! Why would I repeat the same mistake?”

Weeds began to sprout up from the soil and I let them grow. I occasionally even tended them and allowed them to choke the two seedlings that continued to flourish despite my negligence. For over a year, I lived among the weeds and embraced their thorns and false ephemeral beauty.

 

What changed?

I am not sure. When my friends go through similar struggles, I share with them the same mantras that helped me through my loss. “Everything is 20/20 in hindsight.” “Adversity creates opportunity.” “It takes half the length of a relationship to get over one.”

But these were not the statements that ultimately convinced me to stand back up.

For six months, every morning was a battle. Just the process of opening my eyes and recognizing the world induced tears. I needed mandatory rehearsals and midterm exams to force me to get up – and for a while, the runway was my therapy. I found relief in the lines of the clothes and the pounding of the beats. When I walked, the weight of the world momentarily vanished and all that mattered was the stretch of stage before me. During those brief moments, I became nothing more than the fabric on my frame and my existence evaporated with all of its pain.

But after the show, I returned to full consciousness and every moment of it was unbearable.

I remember very little of the spring quarter of my sophomore year. When I search for memories, I find a long hazy stain punctuated by faded images of midnight heart-and-soul, an Urban Outfitters sweater, study sessions in 4N, a stroll through the new ARTIC modern wing, and the lingering taste of pink cotton candy accompanied by the soundtrack of “Kids” by MGMT.

But somewhere, however, in the bleak fog of those months, I discovered my utility.

I realized my hands, my fingers – their capacity to hold, to pick up, to write, to caress, to point, to guide. I saw my ears, my legs, my neck, my face: I saw the functional human body before me and recognized its physical capacities. However barren and burnt my soul may have been, I could not deny the potential utility of my body. The most pivotal realization of my life became this: that even if every second of every day you live is hell, as long as you have the capacity to bring happiness into another person’s life – whether this means sitting down next to a stranger in the dining hall, baking cookies for your neighbors, or making a baby laugh with a silly face – if you can induce a smile, your life is worth living. Life is a perpetual struggle, a journey over rivers, valleys, mountains and deserts. Others may never comprehend your struggles, but you also can never completely know what others are going through. Who knows whether one smile, heartfelt conversation, or helpful hand may transform someone’s day, or even their life?

 

Life did not become any easier or less miserable, but it did take on a purpose and a drive – the pursuit of utility, a desire to be the best I could be and to make the most of what I had. Instead of focusing on my own suffering, I started to prioritize how I could relieve the pain of others. I pursued utility – I tried to maximize my usefulness to serve the happiness of others, and hoped that, in the process, I would also find happiness.

I began to pull out the weeds and plant new seeds. I took risks because I felt that I no longer had anything to lose. I was no longer afraid of people. I did not fear poverty. I did not fear death.

I love J.K. Rowling’s speech to the Harvard graduating class of 2008, especially when she discussed the benefits of failure:

 

“[F]ailure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me… I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive […] And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

 

From rock bottom, I began to pick up the scattered shards to construct a new and improved Lydia 2.0.

I looked for ways to make myself useful to others – to friends, to the campus, to the local community, to communities abroad. I started designing activities for preschoolers, I taught arts and crafts at a school in the Dominican Republic, I spent long afternoons picking up manure in a Guatemalan field.

At school, I soon became involved in all things Africa-related, and began to focus especially on Rwanda.

Somehow, the country’s devastating history and post-genocide reconstructive efforts struck a chord with me. Here was an entire population that had experienced and endured more than I could ever imagine, and yet in the aftermath of destruction the nation’s unparallelled growth and progress have astonished the world. Here was a story of great loss and extreme pain, but also a story of healing, recovery, and reconciliation. 

Rwanda became my inspiration and my muse for personal growth and self-recovery. And my goal became to witness the country’s progress first-hand and also play a role in contributing to its Vision 20/20.

 

As you already know, dear Readers, I finally had the opportunity to realize this goal TWICE last year – a BIG THANK YOU to the Provost’s Office! Those trips convinced me that Rwanda was where I belonged.

And now I am back in Rwanda again! (Yes, the blog lives on!). And this time, I am here to stay for at least one or two years.

 

But you know what?

 

I miss you.

It’s not really that I’m unhappy here or anything – no, I still love my taxi-moto rides, my daily cups of African tea, the long nights of music and dancing, the sense of purpose and meaning. I am happy here. Truly, I am.

But it’s the small things.

I miss occasionally feeling invisible. I miss walking down Michigan Avenue without having everybody turn to stare and gawk at me because I am a foreigner. I miss House music, Lyric Opera performances and CSO concerts. I miss blueberries and Whole Foods samples. I miss having the security of a return date. I even miss the el.

But most of all, I miss YOU.

I miss all of the people in my life who used to be oh-so-accessible via text, calling, facebook, gchat, skype, email, etc. The internet isn’t bad here, but it still isn’t good enough to have a sustained video chat or even an unbroken gchat conversation.

 

 

Graduation passed by smoothly in June, but it was July when the reality of all the good byes started to hit me. I quickly realized that my determined ambivalence toward intimacy and all my efforts to remain aloof and detached had failed and failed miserably.

Yes, I had planted a variety of new seeds – all sorts of flowers and vegetables and fruits that sprouted and flourished and yielded blossoms. But never any trees – no, I refused to plant another tree. That was one risk I would never ever ever take again.

Yet still – somehow, a new tree sprouted among the weeds and grew despite my conviction that it was just another weed. At first, I regarded its growth and emerging buds with great suspicion. However, over time, I learned to trust in the safe shade of its branches and the loyalty of its trunk.

But life moves on. Sometimes if we’re lucky, we understand why things happen, but most of the time, we don’t.

When it came to be time for me to move on, I had trouble leaving the familiarity of my garden. Some of my most beloved plants have stood with me through the worst storms and droughts and still remained as steadfast and loyal as ever. The tree, especially, had taught me to love and trust again. I didn’t want to leave but it gently pushed me away and whispered, “It’s not ‘good bye’, it’s ‘I’ll see you later’.”

 

Returning to Rwanda for the third time has made me reflect and reevaluate why I am here. I am trying to see the larger picture – the experiences, the people, the setbacks, the failures and successes – that have led me here.

I have spent much of the past two years running away — and twice in the past, Rwanda was my escape. I ran away from Chicago to learn and experience and breathe in a foreign country. But problems have an annoying tendency of catching up to you. The third time around, Rwanda is not nearly as charming or delightful – in fact, the past two weeks have presented more challenges and frustrations than the full duration of my two previous trips here.

But you know what? Perhaps it is here, in the belly of a great fish, that I can once again reach rock bottom and begin to see myself completely and honestly.

Thank you again, as always, for reading.

MURAHO from Kigali, Rwanda. It is good to be back.

 

 

 

When Worlds Collide

“I think everyone must love life more than anything else in the world.”

> >>>>>   “Love life more than the meaning of it?”

“Yes, certainly. Love it regardless of logic, as you say. Yes, most certainly regardless of logic, for only then will you grasp its meaning.

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky



It is 3 AM and I am standing at a crosswalk in New York City.

Times Square is quiet tonight.


It is not silent, mind you – no, the “city that never sleeps” could never be silent. It is 3 AM and the gaudy charmer still churns, twists, flashes its vitality of energy and movement – “You CANNOT miss this show! Buy your tickets now!” HSBC M-M-M-M yellow Barclays FOREVER 21 laughter bubbles summer “would you mind taking a picture of us?” girls in pink uniforms flash-dance camera pretzels Mary Poppins Starbucks grande skinny vanilla lattes smoke from cigarettes MAC make-up American Eagle . . .

And yet, Times Square is quiet.

I stand here – in the midst of all the bustle, honking, explosive color and lights – and the world suddenly blurs, its violent contrast abruptly muted to an almost harmonious hum.

And in the pulse that remains along its softened edges, I find what I have been searching.


“There is nothing to writing. You just sit down and bleed”  – Ernest Hemingway


Kivu at the TFF Filmmaker/Industry Lounge

I see a trajectory in the chaos. The need for an answer, the desperate desire for meaning that drives us here and there, in and out of cities, jobs, interests, and relationships in its pursuit. But here in Times Square, at this precise moment, the structure momentarily fades and in the absence of form and projections telling me what to value and what to believe – I suddenly feel meaning.

Standing next to me is Kivu Ruhorahoza. Those of you who follow my blog may remember Kivu.

Five months ago when I was in Rwanda, I met Kivu at Papyrus through mutual friends. A five-second introduction turned into dinner at New Cactus, a couple parties, and a promise to stay in touch. His nomadic lifestyle inspired me – a life of spontaneity and adventure lived for the sake of artistic creation and expression.

When I met Kivu, he was a struggling filmmaker trying to secure post-production funding for his film. He briefly explained to me the plot of his film (an explanation, by the way, that did not do the film justice), but I was more interested in Kivu’s plans to publish a novel. Then, in March, I received an unexpected email – Kivu’s film, Grey Matter, had been selected for a world premiere at the TriBeCa Film Festival! Grey Matter set a precedent not just as Kivu’s first feature film – but also as the first feature film by a Rwandan filmmaker.

VERY, VERY EXCITING STUFF.

A couple emails and gchat conversations later, I had a plane ticket to New York City and a one-week pass to TriBeCa.


Yes, that is Robert De Niro.

During the day, I would follow Kivu around the TFF/Filmmaker Lounge and the Cadillac Press Lounge where he did interviews with The New Yorker, Slant Magazine, radio stations, etc. Then, starting at about 5pm, we would begin attending the cocktail parties, press meet and greets, filmmaker industry parties, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) parties, film premiere after parties, etc. etc.

I’ve never felt so networked-out in my life.

 

 

I always get this “WOW” response when I say that I ate with Robert De Niro at the Directors Brunch, or that Adrian Brody and Eva Mendes were also at the Cadillac Press Lounge. And apparently, I met a lot of famous people that I didn’t recognize – like Jay O. Sanders, Denis Leary, Anna Kendrick, Tristan Wilds, etc. – among others.

Kivu at the world premiere of Grey Matter.

Then, there are those on the red carpet just a stone’s throw away – Julia Roberts, Miranda Kerr and Orlando Bloom, Hayden Panetierre, Sean Penn, the list goes on and on.

But honestly, the most remarkable people that I met were not the glitzy glamorous celebrities, but the aspiring filmmakers and struggling writers. I was so impressed and inspired by the artists who traveled from across the world to premiere their films at TriBeCa. For many of them, they brought their life’s work to the festival – creations that have cost years of frustrating labor and fortunes, relationships, opportunities, and maybe even nearly their lives – because they believed they had something worth expressing and communicating to the rest of the world. I admire their nervousness and modesty, the way their eyes light up whenever someone loves their film, the way they despair when others hate it.

Filmmakers Logi Hilmarsson (from Iceland) and Dor Fadlon (from Israel).

Initially, attending all the networking events was a bit tiring and difficult. For starters, I have no connection to the film industry whatsoever. When people came up to me, I always prefaced with a disclaimer “I’m just a friend, no one important – feel free to move on” but I found that people were relieved and talked to me more naturally because I was not another person to impress. The whole thing seemed rather silly – milling about a room with a cocktail in hand, trying to appear as someone “important” so that you can meet and talk to someone “more important” and use whatever skills or connections they can offer to you. In the meantime, there are staff members whose designated roles are to whisper in your ear and tell you exactly who to approach and prep for. The whole thing becomes an evaluation and estimation of people and how useful they can be to you.



Obviously, I wasn’t “important” and wasn’t going to be particularly useful to anyone in the room. Even worse, I hadn’t seen Kivu’s film. So naturally, after admitting my unimportance, I dreaded the second and third questions: “Who is your friend?” and “What is his film about?”

Uh … that’s him over there – Kivu Ruhorahoza. And … haha … I actually haven’t seen his film.”

Awkward.

Kivu insisted that I see his film at the second screening, which meant that I had to endure three days of networking as the “filmmaker’s-guest-who-has-not-seen-the-filmmaker’s-film.”

When I finally saw Kivu’s film, I had even less to say.

Many people call Kivu a “genius” and say that his film is “phenomenal” “fantastic” “amazing” “powerful” and even (much to Kivu’s dismay) “awesome.” His film has garnered very high ratings from critics and generated a lot of buzz in the press and at the festival.

But these words are so empty, so clumsy, so devoid of meaning.


What did you think of the film?” Kivu asked me.

How can I explain this to you?

I didn’t respond. I couldn’t respond.

How could I synthesize my reaction to his film in words when every second of the film was so precisely and sensitively selected and executed? The scenes that I remember vividly – the elevator going up and then down, the taxi-moto, the mirrored reflection, the swarming flies, the lipstick, the machete catching on the fabric, the mini-skirt – do not adequately represent the meaning that I absorbed and that I continue to process.

It was the first time I had watched a film and known its maker.

Every scene became a creation and extension of the artist, and the film felt that much more intimate and captivating. I entered the story knowing that I was entering into Kivu’s imagination, his memory, his experience and his pain. The characters communicated so much more than what they verbalized and I sat in the cinema mesmerized by all that I watched, experienced, and learned. Two thoughts came immediately to mind as I watched Kivu’s film: 1) I really need to stop watching so many crappy films when there are films like this out there, and 2) Damn, I’m going to need to re-write my thesis.

But the true impact of his film is something that I continue to probe and process.

How do I respond to Yvan? Here is a character whose pain and torture is so far removed from everything I know, and who is himself distanced from the horrors that he imagines, and yet his experience is so unbearably personal and resonant. I watch him suffer from demons he cannot control and, as a viewer, I am also helpless as I watch the cycle unfold. The insanity of a madman and the silent, almost-invisible struggles of two siblings communicate the trauma of genocide with far greater precision and truth than graphic images of violence and killing. I grasp the “Cycle of the Cockroach” and its explicit tie to Rwanda and to Africa, but I feel uneasy with its implications – not just for the characters in the film, but also for the parallel reality that the characters represent. What does it mean to make a film about a cycle? The “Cycle of the Cockroach” implies no end to pain and suffering, but like the characters, I continue to ignore its inevitability and hope that things will get better.

Kivu accepts an award at the TFF Award Ceremony.

The camera pans out on the struggling filmmaker as the film ends, and I feel no hope. But I do not think that is what you are trying to say.

What do you want me to know?

Overnight, Kivu transformed from a struggling filmmaker to a celebrity. His film, Grey Matter, won two awards – a Special Jury Commendation for Best New Narrative Director, and also, the award for Best Actor. So many doors seemed to open that night, but it was humbling to see how Kivu took all of the film’s success in stride and continued to prefer a quiet dinner and evening stroll over the clamoring press, distributors, producers, etc that all suddenly wanted to be his best friends.

Which leads us back to Times Square.

So much has happened since our five-second meeting in December.


How can I explain this to you?


I’m not sure that I can.

But as we stand here in all of life’s vitality, energy, and promise – in Times Square, but also in Kigali, Chicago, Texas, Brussels, Paris – I sense meaning in the moment. Who knows why things happen and why we meet the people we do?

Life is terribly predictable and unpredictable in turns, but I know that every second of all of this – this tenuous, finicky, messy battle/race/journey we call life – matters.

And perhaps it is this embrace of all of life’s minor details and random encounters, that leads us to a better comprehension of life’s meaning.


I cannot explain this to you.

But I hope you understand.



Links to interviews with Kivu about his film, Grey Matter:

TriBeCa’s interview with Kivu: http://www.tribecafilm.com/festival/features/Kivu_Ruhorahoza_Grey_Matter.html

New York Times: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/kivu-ruhorahoza/

Film Review by Slant Magazine: http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/grey-matter/5464