Late start

 Posted by Miriam Apter at 8:44 pm  Rwanda
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.


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