A Visit to Gardens for Health

Before I left Rwanda I got to visit the headquarters of an organization I have studied and admired since I was selected for this internship in February. Gardens for Health is a non-profit organization that has been operating in Rwanda since 2007. Their aim is to use agriculture to fight stunting and malnutrition, which plague many Rwandans. As Gardens for Health mentions on the website, it is remarkable that 80% of Rwandans grow food for a living, but 35% of Rwandan children are malnourished. The organization has trained over 16,000 Rwandan on the importance good nutrition and how one can still eat a healthy diet even with limited resources and money.

I became aware of this organization in February when I learned that the nutrition trainings that the TI projects does for its farmers follow the Gardens for Health curriculum. Gardens for Health actually led the nutrition trainings for the TI project last summer. Tracy Bucyana, the TI project nutrition-specialist, was trained to teach the GHI curriculum later last year.

The TI project’s nutrition trainings are unique in that we emphasize the importance of animal protein. Our farmers have about three chickens that they get to keep for consumption at the end of each 6 week cycle, so they have direct access to an complete source of protein. It is extremely important that our farmers know the benefits of consistent consumption of chicken meat, as well as the benefits of consuming a diet with variety.

I reached out to Gardens for Health, and told them I would love to visit and talk to them about my experience helping with the TI project nutrition trainings. They invited me to visit on July 12th, and I was lucky to be joined by my boss and TI project manager Katie McGehee. Their headquarters is just outside of Kigali, so it was about a 30 minute drive from the center of town.

They have their offices in a nice building beside their 5 acre farm. Katie and I met with the program director outside and we all got to share our experiences working with Rwandan farmers and our goals for the future.

            I was able to help some of the farmers till the soil ready to plant cauliflower, and Katie taught me how to lay mulch in the garden beds. Midway through the visit the staff announced that they had just boiled bushels of corn, and they offered us some. Rwandan corn has become one of my new favorite foods, so obviously I accepted their kind offer.

            I continued to visit with the staff there until there was a call for lunch. Every day Gardens for Health does a community lunch. Everyone working for their organization and everyone in the community is invited to come and eat their food. Their lunch always include the 4 colors of food that they teach in their curriculum. On this day we were served white rice, beans, cassava leaves, tomatoes, avocados, and pili pili (a delicious spice made from scotch bonnet peppers!) Dozens of school children came for lunch and I had so much fun playing with them. I thought it was really incredible how the even the executive director of Gardens for Health sat and ate with all of his staff and kids from the community. This was a really special visit for Katie and I, and I am so inspired by Gardens for Health and the work that they do!

The Challenge of a Lifetime- Hiking Mount Bisoke

I have always enjoyed hiking, and Musanze is a hiker’s paradise! Volcanoes National Park is huge, and people come from all over the world to hike its mountains and volcanoes. I had been interested in hiking Mount Bisoke for months before I came to Rwanda, and on my last week there I finally got to do it. I had to go on my own, however, because I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to hike the 8 hours with me.

I took a motorbike to Volcanoes National Park Headquarters to be there for 6:40am. It was very important that I be there early so that I could find other hikers to ride with. Luckily I made it there in time to meet a nice group of Belgians who were going to hike Mount Bisoke, and they said I was welcome to join them. Mount Bisoke is very close, so it was only about a 20 minute jeep ride away from the park headquarters.

Our group, the Belgians and I, started hiking after being briefed by our guide. Much like the gorilla trek, we were joined by many guards with guns and machetes ready to fight off buffalos and elephants. I went to the front of the group, and I intended to lead the 8 hour hike. I used to run 60 miles a week as a division 1 athlete, and I continue to exercise heavily now. I didn’t think that Mount Bisoke would be easy, but I thought it was definitely within my capabilities.

An hour into the hike, I started to doubt these assumptions I had made about myself. It had rained for over three hours the previous night in Musanze, so the mud was incredibly thick. It came up several inches past my ankles with every step. The hike was so steep that my legs were simply not long enough to make it up some of the steps, and I had to be pulled or dragged up by another hiker. After a while I found that crawling on my hands and knees was the more efficient method of hiking, but even this was exhausting.

 I stood to the side and let some people pass me. I kept going, but 15 minutes later I had to stop and let others pass as well. This went on until I found myself almost at the back of the large group. The guards tried to encourage me by saying, “Believe what Obama said- ‘yes we can!’” But later they told me “we want to see me alive at the bottom,” and it would be best to turn back. Being the stubborn person I am, I refused and kept going. But when I was literally stuck in the mud 3 hours in I made the decision not to continue.

This was really devastating to me. I never quit anything, especially nothing athletic. I really wanted to see the crater lake at the top of the mountain, but it was clear I would not make it. The hike down was just as challenging as the way up. I had to have a guard holding each of my arms just to keep me upright.

This was of course a very humbling experience. Hiking Mount Bisoke was the hardest thing I have ever done. I gained a huge respect for the incredible guides and guards who do the hike everyday. I am in total awe of them. They even do it weighted down in heavy gear with backpacks. They don’t take breaks. They just trudge along and never complain. These guides and guards completely embody the meaning of “resiliency” and admire them so much.

A Once-In-A-Lifetime Opportunity -Gorilla Trekking!

If you visit Musanze you will probably be asked if you are going to see gorillas. Multiple times. By multiple people. Local people see visitors and expect them to be tourists to trek the gorillas. For weeks I had been answering this question with “Yes, I am. I’m going soon and I’m very excited.”

On July 6th the day finally came. I left the house at 5:30am to get to the Gorillas Hotel to meet the VOLeaders at 6am. The VOLeaders are a group of 15 exceptional student athletes from the University of Tennessee, ranging in sports from golf to football. These student athletes are selected by their academic counselors to participate in a leadership course throughout their school year, and in the summer they do an international service project. This summer the group came to Rwanda! The VOLeaders were so kind to me on their visit. They gave me some of their custom Nike gear, and I got to share the incredible experience of gorilla trekking with them.

We took jeeps to the Volcanos National Park Headquarters in Kinigi, and waited for others to aware. These headquarters are where all tours in the national park begin, including tours of Mount Bisoke, Mount Karisimbi, golden monkey treks, and nature walks. We divided into groups (groups are limited to 8 people for gorilla trekking) and were briefed by our guides.

I had a spectacular guide for my group, and he took us to Mount Karisimbi to trek the Isimbe group of gorillas.  It was about a 90 minute jeep ride to Mount Karisimbi, and we rolled and bumped along dirt roads through little villages.

Once at the base of Mount Karisimbi we walked through several hundred meters of potato fields to get to the forest. Our group was accompanied by several guards yielding large machetes, which are meant to protect us against buffalos and elephants. We hiked for about an 90 minutes, and our guide was talking to the gorillas trackers on radio the entire time. The gorilla trackers had been on the mountain all morning following the Isimbe group, and their job was to tell our guide where to take us to see the group.

 After the 90 minute trek through mud and bamboo we reached a clearing and stumbled (almost literally) on to the Isimbe group. Totaling 15, they are a magnificent group of gorillas. There is a silverback, a few regular sized gorillas, and so many infant gorillas. Our guide told us that the rule is that we have to stand at least 7 meters back from the gorillas, but the gorillas came so close to us that I doubt we were more than 1 meter away at some points. We were allowed to spend 1 hour with the gorillas, and it was completely mesmerizing. They are incredibly massive, but yet so gentle and docile. They were not threatened by us at all.

We left the Isimbe group and started the trek back down Mount Karisimbi, but the gorilla trackers would be on the mountain the rest of the day. They follow the Isimbe group everywhere, and they move through the forest with their machetes as their protection. I asked them if they were scared about ever getting lost, and they said no because they train for months to be trackers. What an example of resiliency!

The World is Small and Rwanda is Even Smaller

A few Saturdays back I was walking along the street to go home for the evening. I stopped at the same street vendor where I always do to buy corn, or maize as Rwandans called it (The corn is fantastic. It is grilled over a small charcoal fire and sold extremely hot. One cob only costs 100 Rwandan Franks, or 11 cents). To my surprise, I heard someone calling my name as I was buying the corn. I turned around to see my friend Denyse holding corn behind me. I met Denyse in Kigali a few weeks ago. She is the good friend of the Rwandan interns at Zamura. She works as a journalist in Kigali, so it was a total surprise to see her almost 3 hours away in Musanze!

She told me that she was visiting her family in Musanze for the weekend, and she invited me to have dinner with them. So I walked almost an hour with her from my house to her house across town. Denyse was born and raised in Musanze, so it was very special to hear about the city from her perspective.  

I arrived to her house at 10pm, and was greeted with literal open arms by her mom, dad, and three young siblings. Her parents had dinner waiting for us on the table. It was a delicious, traditional Rwandan meal of vegetable soup (more like a puree of amaranth, swiss chard, and other greens), white rice, and a mixture of beans and carrots. Denyse’s family is unique for Musanze, however, because they have meat with nearly every dinner. On this night they served chicken wings and drumsticks they had purchased from the market. I ate the soup, beans and carrots, and rice. They were delicious!

We of course washed our hands before eating, but it wasn’t in a sink. Denyse’s mom put soap in my hands and held a bucket underneath them, and Denyse poured water over my hands from a cup. I did the same for her. Our hands got very clean!

We finished the evening by drinking black tea, which I’ve found is the most common type in Rwanda. I played with her siblings and held her baby sister, who was surprisingly comfortable being held by a mzungu.

Denyse and her parents walked me to the road and helped me call down a motorbike to take me home.

I thought I would spend the evening alone at my house, but instead I got to see one of my good friends and eat dinner with her family. It was such a special evening for me!

Traveling from Kigali to Musanze

I had a great experience traveling back to Musanze from Kigali this weekend. I stayed in Kigali until Monday June 24th to take my fellow Zamura intern and friend Ashley to the airport.

It was dark by the time we said goodbye at the airport, and I took a station. The bus station in Kigali, Nyabagogo, is a very hectic and even chaotic place. Many people were traveling that Monday night, so I was going to have to wait over an hour for my bus to arrive. To even get on the bus at a busy time it is essential that you push and shove, something that I have a difficult time doing.

While waiting amidst the chaos I met a very nice woman, Regina, who explained how she was in charge of several school in Rwanda, and she lived in Musanze during the week. Her bus was leaving about 45 minutes before mine, so we said goodbye when her bus arrived.

I continued to wait alone in the dark parking lot, when people on Regina’s bus started shouting, “Mzungu!” I ran over to see the problem, and people started to explain to me that someone had given up his seat on the bus so that I could get on the bus and sit beside Regina.

Grateful and in disbelief, I asked Regina what had happened. She said to me, “We know that you are a foreigner, and we know that it is not easy for you here. So we have to help you.” I was so incredibly touched by this gesture and by the mentality of the people in Rwanda. Regina and I talked the entire 2.5 hour bus ride back to Musanze. She told me about her life in Rwanda and she even shared with me her story of how her family was affected by the genocide.

I was so lucky to meet Regina, but there are plenty of other people like her in Rwanda too. Everyone is not only willing, but excited to help.

Akagera National Park

This weekend the interns and I took an incredible trip to Akagera National Park. This park covers over 1000 square kilometers in Rwanda’s Eastern Provence. The five of us took a 2 hour van-ride from Kigali to the park early on Saturday morning. We had an incredible guide, Cedric, who actually went to high school with one of the Zamura interns, Eric.

Cedric drove us through the entire park. We stood up in the van and looked out the roof for the entire 6 hour safari.

We saw so many incredible animals- giraffes, zebras, hippos, crocodiles, warthogs, and many others. There are also incredibly brightly colored birds flying all around the park. Unfortunately we did not see lions or elephants, but all of the other animals made up for it!

I did some research on the park after the safari and learned that it was founded in 1934. Its size was reduced from 2500 square kilometers in 1997 to provide space for refugees returning to Rwanda after the genocide.

There is almost no poaching in Akagera. Ten percent of the money made by the park go towards conservation efforts in Rwanda, an attempt to teach Rwandans the importance of conservation and discourage them from poaching.

The two Rwandan interns at Zamura, Eric and Esdras, had never been to Akagera. They loved the safari and they said, “I didn’t realize how beautiful Rwanda is!” We all agreed that Akagera National Park was the most incredible activity we have done here this summer.

Visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial

This weekend was an incredibly moving one. I visited the Rwandan Genocide Memorial for the first time. The memorial is a beautiful building on the outskirts of Kigali. I went on Sunday, June 23rd with my friends and fellow interns Ashley and Eric. We opted not to pay the 20 dollars for an audio-guided tour, instead we wandered through the exhibits ourselves and let Eric be our guide.

Eric grew up in Kigali, but he had never been inside the Genocide Museum. He said that the history of the genocide is part of the curriculum in school in Rwanda, and most schools take field trips to the memorial grounds.

This year is a very special year for the Rwandan people. It is the 25th anniversary of the Genocide.

It was incredibly harrowing to read about how the Genocide began- how neighbors and even families turned against each other. The exhibit went into detail about how quickly the killings were. People were trained to kill hundreds within a matter or minutes. Over 800,000 people were killed during a 100 day period in 1994.

The hardest part of the going through the museum was the children’s room. There are pictures of children of all ages. There is a large plaque in front of each picture which displays each child’s name, favorite activity, favorite food, and cause of death. All of the causes of death were incredibly brutal, ranging from “hacked with a machete” and “shot between the eyes.”

Even more incredible than any of the statistics is the forgiveness of the Rwandan people. Ashley and I kept marveling at each other how the people were able to overcome such a tragedy. I don’t think I could ever do what the Rwandan people have done. It made me angry just to read about how innocent people were ruthlessly killed.

When Ashley and I asked Eric about this he said something like, “That’s the only thing we can do. It’s not fair but that’s what we do. That’s why we have memorials like these to remember and show how it is unfair.”

I am so grateful I got to visit the memorial, and that Ashley and I were able to learn from Eric. I am so in awe of the Rwandan people. They are truly the nicest I have ever met, and they hold no hatred in their hearts.