Miriam Apter

So long…

 Posted by Miriam Apter at 8:35 am  Rwanda  Comments Off on So long…
Jun 212012


After much back and forth, I decided to come home to fully recover, The antibiotics did seem to start working, but my doctor at home had said that even if they do, I will feel weak and tired for a little while after, and my immune system will be low and I would be very susceptible to catching something else. My breathing was also not totally back to normal there, and when I went outside the dust seemed to make it worse. I was very conflicted because I knew it was possible that I would get better in a few days, but the risks seemed higher and after seeing what medical care was like there, I decided to make the responsible decision and go home so that I can recover properly, in a clean environment with better nutrition than what was available to me.

On Sunday evening I headed back toKigalito stay in the guest house there and Monday night I flew out. I had a really nice last evening and went with a few of the other volunteers inKigalito the hotel that the movie HotelRwandawas based off of. It’s a beautiful hotel and we sat by the pool there for a while. I flew out at 1am, stopping inUganda(just to pick more people up) thenIstanbuland then to JFK and got home Tuesday evening. I have been recovering well and am mostly better now that I can eat and breathe properly. I’m taking it easy for the first few days and sleeping it off and am doing pretty well.

I was pretty bummed out about cutting my trip short. I’ve been planning this for almost a year, and spent a lot of time doing research, preparing and meeting with people, in addition to having spent most of my savings on the trip. But, as I tend to be reminded, there is only so much that is in my control. The comforting aspect is that I think that everything that was in my control, I had done. Any preparations that I could have made I did, and this unforeseeable circumstance was something I couldn’t have done anything about if I had wanted to. While making the decision, part of me was concerned that I was giving up to soon, and maybe I would be fine if I stayed, but in the end I decided that it wasn’t worth the risk. When I decided to go, and plenty of family and friends thought that I was crazy, and were concerned for my safety and the fact that I was going alone, I kept reassuring people that they shouldn’t worry, because they know that I am responsible and generally make safe and good decisions. I realized that I needed to live up to that, and take care of myself. Aside from that, the support and concern I was receiving from back home was heartwarming.

Though I didn’t have the full work experience there that I had wanted, and my time was cut short I still gained an incredible amount from the experience. Seeing how things function on the ground, experiencing the life and culture, and even getting a firsthand taste of medical care inRwandawas all still possible in my three weeks there.

A little disappointed yes, but no regrets.

Thanks for reading, and for all of the encouragement and support throughout the whole process of this trip.

Man plans…

 Posted by Miriam Apter at 8:55 pm  Rwanda  Comments Off on Man plans…
Jun 142012


Shabbat #2 was pretty much the same, lit candles, ate, read, slept, walked around the area. Saturday night I got sick, some sort of stomach thing and had a pretty rough night. Sunday my stomach was better but I started to have flu like symptoms- fever, congested, weak etc. On Monday, Angel (the translator and person from FVA who stays with us) walked into my room and said “you have Malaria”. I kindly explained that I don’t think I have Malaria, I am taking pills for that and it is probably just a cold. My room mate, Jane, who is a nurse then informed me that the Malaria pills are only 95 percent effective and maybe I’m part of the other five percent. I started googling, and came to see that I had all 6 of the symptoms of Malaria. I went back out to Angel and said “so… you think it  is Malaria?” She said “Yes”. So I asked what happens now. She said we go to get you tested. She called a cab and we went, Jane came along. I asked if we were going to the clinic that one of the volunteers goes to which was rather… well not exactly the type of place I wanted to be pricked with needles. She laughed and said no, we were going to a nice place, a private doctor. The “nice” place was relatively clean. If you are comparing it to the St Nich in the Heights after Christmas. They do a finger prick for a Malaria test, Jane was there to make sure they used a sterile needle, and when she looked at the packet of the Malaria test she showed them that it was expired and got them to replace it. They did the test, we waited the thirty minutes for the results and then went to speak to the doctor. The doctor and another woman, were facing Jane, Angel and me in the doctor’s office. They were all talking in Kinyarwandan and every so often Angel would ask me a question and translate. I kept trying to cut in and ask Angel to translate. Finally, I burst out “DO I HAVE MALARIA?!” and they all laughed and said no, it came back negative. And continued speaking in another language. Someone eventually explained that they were just trying to figure out what was wrong with me. It was suggested that it was because of my Kosher food. And that because I couldn’t get  Kosher oil and was only eating things boiled, it hurt my stomach. Jane explained that oil is actually bad for your stomach and that theory  doesn’t make sense. My stomach was doing a lot better though anyway so I figured it was flu and just had to wait for it to pass.

Those symptoms lasted until around Wednesday when I thought I was starting to feel a bit better and went to the orphanage in the morning. After about an hour I realized I was still too sick to be out and went back. Wednesday night was bad and I had fever again, and was up all night coughing. Thursday morning I my chest and lungs were hurting from the coughing and I had a hard time breathing. I decided it was time to get some more tests done and we went to the hospital, which I was assured was “real”.  I was told we would walk there, so I assumed it was close but it turned out to be a 30 minute walk, which you can imagine went great combining my hacking cough with the dust and heat. Relative to the doctors office it seemed pretty sanitary. The people wore gloves here, and one of the offices even had a computer. It was super advanced. We did a lot of running around from office to office, and wherever we went there were lines and lines of people. You can’t make appointments, it is first come first serve and patients could have to wait outside for a full day to be seen. We went into someones office who would take us from place to place and we skipped the lines, I’m not sure how. I was told that it was because I was a volunteer but I am not sure exactly what was going down. I may have been paying extra for that but that’s unclear. My initial examination, blood pressure, basic questions, height and weight took place in a waiting room with about 30 people watching. Then I went into the doctor (again passing over a long line of people) who asked me some more questions. She listened to my breathing and ordered another Malaria test (finger prick), a blood test and a chest x-ray and wrote out a couple of prescriptions. I did all that, we went to the pharmacy for the prescriptions which turned out that one of them was just a bottle of regular over the counter cough syrup, and the other was a bag of white pills, unmarked, no label that was put in a bag at the pharmacy from another unmarked bottle. They told me it was a fever reducer (I didn’t have fever at this time) and I refused to take those pills much to Angel’s chagrin.

Information about what test I needed was given to Angel on little scribbled pieces of paper (looks like HIPAA laws don’t apply here)

The X-ray was done in a room that was pretty open, with an open window. Before I undressed I looked for a door to close or a curtain for the window and realized there wasn’t one. They took my x-ray and the doctor said to bring blood test and xray results together, and the blood test was going to take 3 hours. The whole hospital trip took about 3 hours, I went home to wait for results and we went back 3 hours later. It turns out, I have Bronchiole Pneumonia. Well, that would explain why it hurts to breathe. They said I started off with the flu and then it turned to pneumonia. I got a prescription (a real one this time) and we’ll see what happens. I did some reading online, pneumonia can either be viral or bacterial and they can’t always tell. If the antibiotics work then great. If not, it takes around 2-3 weeks to recover from, at which point I am due to go home. Based on the medical care here, the possibility of it getting worse, and the sanitary as well as food conditions, I am not exactly in the best place for a quick recovery. The plan as of now, is to see whether the antibiotics work and I will be better enough to start working again, and if not I may have to consider coming back early.

That’s the basic update as of now, we’ll see how Shabbat goes… hopefully I’ll have a complete recovery and be able to go back to work for the two weeks I have left…

Late start

 Posted by Miriam Apter at 8:44 pm  Rwanda  Comments Off on Late start
Jun 112012

6/7/12 8PM


On Monday, we left to Gisyeni at around 8am for the three hour drive. Gisyeni is a much more rural area, but I was told that we were in close walking distance of a market, which would be helpful for the food issue so that I can easily pick up fruit. There were five us being driven up along with all of our luggage, the driver and Claire, in a car that… didn’t quite fit us. The back of the car had some seats in it, but the luggage was all in there, so we ended up with the driver and Claire in front, 4 of us in the back seat and one basically buried under the luggage. That was a… cozy 3 hour ride which included unpaved roads and sharp turns.

We then went to check out the orphanage and the medical clinic where some of us were working, and arrived at our new guest house at around 3, so it was too late to start working that day (the beginning was dragging too much for my liking.)

I was happy to get unpacked and settled, and tried (with the help of someone translating) to explain some kashrut basics to the cook, a wonderful man by the name of Amani (means peace in Kinyarwandan.) Amani, thank G-d, has been a cook for the guest house for a few years, and remembered many of the laws from a previous volunteer (big shoutout and thanks to Tsufit for that). Other amenities of my new home- running water! Happy to leave the bucket showers behind, even if the new one was freezing cold. No sinks, but we can wash our hands in the shower too, and we need to use purified/bottled water for teeth brushing anyway.

Oh and we have trash cans here! In the last guest house, there were no garbages, anywhere to be found so I had amassed a collection of Chewy bar wrappers and such.

Tuesday could not have come sooner, a week after I left; I was more than ready to start working. I then found out that I was splitting my time between two different places, each with a group of women who had were able to make something that they would sell, helping them to become self sufficient. On the way to work I was told that on Tuesday and Friday I would be working with one cooperative, near where I’m living and on Monday and Thursday I would be working with women who are victims of Gender based violence and usually HIV positive. I asked Angel, the translator who lives with us and comes with me to those places what happens on Wednesday. On Wednesdays I would volunteer at the orphanage. I was looking forward to getting a chance to spend time there as well, but thought it was funny that this was the first I was hearing about working at the orphanage. After months of preparation, lists and a ten page word document with notes and contacts for Rwanda, it might be good for me to have to go with the flow a little bit.

I went to the cooperative on Tuesday nearby, it was supposed to be 12 women but no one was there when Angel and I arrived, but after a while a while 3 more trickled in. The others either were sick or had sick kids and were unable to come. They make bracelets, baskets and dolls. Half the money for every item sold goes to support the cooperative (rent, supplies etc) and the other half goes to the woman who made that item. I was sitting there making bracelets with them, which wasn’t totally what I had signed up for. I was wondering about the purpose of me sitting there and working with them when they could do it better and faster. I had thought the purpose was for me to see the way they do it and come up with better business models, but the structure for that didn’t seem to be there. Another problem was that I found a book that documented initiatives that volunteers took to make changes, and each of them fell apart because there was no structure for them to be handed over to the next volunteer.

The other piece which bothered me was that for the most part, they sell their items to the volunteers. They have volunteers come and help make things to sell to volunteer. That didn’t strike me as a particularly sustainable model if it was dependent on a volunteer economy.

This wasn’t the micro-finance model and sustainable business that I had read about before I came, and certainly not what was in my job description. The truth is though, there was nothing dishonest in the description, and I’ve just come to see that everything looks entirely different on the ground. You can’t put it into the terms we are familiar with and westernize it when it is a different world here.

On Thursday I went to the other cooperative, which was at the medical clinic and it was a group of women who are HIV positive, usually as a result of rape. While the business aspect of this group seemed similar, it felt different to the first one. It was a sort of support group for these women, and whether  or not the model was effective, it was a positive experience as they were all talking and laughing together, there was something peaceful there working with them, a sense of camaraderie that can only be helpful to their healing process.

Wednesday I went to the orphanage and it was an incredible experience. There is an endless amount to do, in all different areas. I started off helping out with the babies, there were rooms full of babies of different ages that had to be fed, changed, etc. then I played ball with a group of kids who looked to be around 4, then I went to the area where the  toddlers aged 2 and 3 were. This was probably the most striking. When you walk in they are all grabbing your arms and initially it seems they are just fascinated by you because you look different. After a bit of time there with a few of them trying to climb up me and get me to hold them I realized it ran a bit deeper than this. I picked up a little girl and the ecstatic look on her face, how tightly she held on, it seems she was just so thrilled and desperate for the love and attention. The orphanage doesn’t neglect them, and was doing their best, but don’t have enough staff for that much personal attention to each kid. After that we got the key to the library, which can only be opened if there is staff or volunteers there. There are some books and a chalk board, and we taught the kids some English and math. I’ve never seen kids so excited to learn. They begged us to bring more pens and paper, which the orphanage didn’t have a stock of. The volunteers there decided to spend a couple of hours in the afternoon every day in the library teaching.


After trying out all the different possibilities I decided to switch from the “business” program to the orphanage as I think my time will be much more effective there. I may still switch off a bit as it is pretty flexible, but we’ll see how things play out.

Adventures begin…

 Posted by Miriam Apter at 3:49 am  Rwanda  Comments Off on Adventures begin…
Jun 032012

6/3/12 5:00PM


Highlights since last post: I got my luggage, which was definitely a good thing. I have to say, it was my first time really experiencing the thought of if my luggage was lost, I was actually going to have an issue. Considering the fact that it  is recommended to only eat fruit with peels and I don’t have a kitchen accessible at all times to cook vegetables, and that the only food it seems that I can buy here is Pringles, Kashrut was looking a little daunting. The anxiety was minimal though because I figured either bananas would work for a month, and worst case scenario I always feel like there are some people in my life who would find a way to get a steak (or some cholent) 6000 miles away if I needed. But, luggage arrived, protein bars, tuna packets and all. Side note: Here’s a fun fact (h/t Tsufit, whose information has proven to be continuously accurate and valuable): Pringles that are Kosher are available in more remote and developing countries, they seem to be the thing that you can always count on.

Anyway… Friday was orientation where we were told the rules of the guesthouse, some common words in Kinyurwandan, we went out to pick up our phones, change money and most importantly (to me) see the genocide memorial inKigali-which is the main national memorial. Rules of the house include a curfew because there is someone who locks up at night. We were warned to not try to come back later and climb over the fence. “Because the police might see you climbing over, and think you are robbing, and then they might shoot you. By mistake. They don’t know you are meant to be here if you are climbing.” Note to self: no scaling fences. Good to know we have security. All joking aside on that, I know I have been saying this to my loved ones for months butRwandais known to be the safest country inEast Africa. One of my fellow volunteers was actually advised to come here instead ofSouth Africabecause it is safer here than there too.

While driving we also passed some Muzungoos (Kinyarwandan for foreigners- what we are referred to as). They were walking on the grass on the side of the street, an area called the compound of a main intersection. Claire, our main guide and one of the people running FVA, the organization I am working with, called out to them that “you cannot walk on the compound. They will arrest you.”

Note to self #2: Don’t walk on the grass.

Going to the memorial was something that I was eager to do, and hope to do again before I leave. It was fascinating to go through the museum both with the perspective of my own research on the genocide, the comparison to the Holocaust museums I have been to, and the Politics of Memory course that I took this past semester. The museum was created with a design that was in many ways similar to Yad Vashem, though possibly more aligned with the USHMM, in regard to the educational content. It began with a portrayal of life inRwandaas it used to be, the culture, the music and the joy. As you walk through the museum you see the history of the genocide and the background of it, starting with the Belgian colonization and through the planning and initial stages of the genocide. It also goes through world responses, and there was a focus on the UN’s lack of assistance, and the small amount of support that could have stopped the genocide. Another interesting piece that differed from Yad Vashem, was that they used the effect of lighting throughout the museum. The rooms were extremely bright when the exhibits discussed the culture ofRwanda, and were progressively darker with an eerier, redish tinge in the rooms about the atrocities, with a brightness (but different from the first room) when the exhibits depicted the recovery.

The most harrowing was a room that had pictures of children, and next to each child it would say facts about them, such as their age, favorite food, favorite color, favorite pastime, and then would say their last words, and how they were killed. There was also a room with walls and walls of pictures that were provided by family members. There were many Rwandans in the museum of all different ages, and many of them were sobbing as they walked through. I also saw them looking at the pictures, looking through them, in a way that was clear that they were looking for faces they knew.

I was told another piece that I found interesting. The movie “Hotel Rwanda” is apparently not looked at fondly by all Rwandans, as some say that the hero depicted took money for the people he saved- the film it seems has stirred a controversial discussion that I am quite familiar with in the context of Schindler and the way he was depicted in “Schindler’s List”.

We got back barely in time for Shabbat, I lit candles and had my Shabbat meal while the other volunteers had dinner. Special for Shabbat was some dried meat in wraps. It was very exciting. Shabbat day I went for a walk to explore the area with the other volunteers, that passed the time, and Shabbat went very smoothly.

Today was also pretty relaxed, as we are just waiting to get settled and started. Tomorrow we head to Gisyeni, a three hour drive away, which is where the other volunteer center is. That is where I’ll be based, and starting work hopefully on Monday or Tuesday.

I think that covers the last few days. More to follow!


Day 1

 Posted by Miriam Apter at 10:32 pm  Rwanda  Comments Off on Day 1
May 312012

5/30/12 5:00 PM


You know your standards have changed in the span of 24 hours when three days old is fresh, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (that’s 3 days old) is the most substantial and delicious meal you could hope for, and when you are looking forward to your bucket shower.

Well. Landed at about 1am, my flight from JFK toIstanbulwas delayed so I had to sprint and fight my way through to get to my connecting flight on time. Turns out my luggage doesn’t sprint and push as well as I do, and didn’t make it toKigaliwith my. After I waited in the one room airport at the single luggage belt conveyer, and watched the same 6 pieces of luggage pass, someone from the airport came up to me and asked (or rather played charades) about my bags. I flailed my hands in ways which seemed to indicate that my luggage wasn’t there, so he took my tickets and went out a back door which took him onto the runway, I guess to make sure it wasn’t let in a corner of the very small cargo of the very small plane. Then I went to the office. They had computers there but it didn’t look like they were ever used, and without speaking the same language I somehow manage to describe my luggage to him, and filled out a triplicate form. One of the other 5 people on line for lost luggage (it seems they aren’t so good with getting your luggage to come with you when you travel toRwanda-no one seemed concerned) translated for me that he would call tomorrow and a number that I can call and check.

They didn’t call, but I called today and they said they had it. Luckily I had a change of clothes and some Nutter Butters in my hand luggage. I saved my PB and J for dinner. Someone is going to take me to the airport to pick up my luggage soon.

I am in a temporary place now, in one volunteer center until Sunday and then I move to one closer to where I am working.

This one is nice, my mosquito net adds a lot to the décor of the room, we have a living room and dining room. We have a flushing toilet most of the time, and a big Jerry can near the shower and sink. So it’s LIKE running water, just you pour it yourself.

Didn’t do much today, because I don’t have a phone yet and haven’t been able to change money, so mostly slept.

Tomorrow is orientation, when I’ll change money, get a phone and have more idea of what’s going on.

I think that covers everything for now, not much happening yet. Looking forward to getting my stuff so that I can feast on some Tuna.

Will send an update again when I can!

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