Look! It’s been 2 Months!

So, I am two months down. Do you have any questions you would like answered about my amazing experiences in Rwanda? Feel free to comment here or send me an email at ben.weinberg.218@gmail.com. Thank you all for your continued support!

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A Trip 14 Years in the Making

In first grade after recess my entire class was ushered onto a plane and traveled to Africa with our binoculars and cameras. We saw lions, hippos, elephants, giraffes, and antelopes just like in The Lion King! Yes, our plane was just our chairs arranged in rows and our cameras were made of cardboard and film canisters, but I was in Africa, right?

I hope all you have gathered that Africa is more than just open land with wild animals running around. Of course that is part of the continent, just like the corn in Iowa is part of the state, but my experiences in Rwanda had been limited to life in the city. I don’t know many people that do corn tours in the Hawkeye State but it is hard to resist the opportunity to experience the wildlife that does exist in this area of Africa.Our program got the amazing opportunity to go to Murchison Falls National Park during our trip to Uganda which included a boat ride on the Nile River and a game drive the next morning. So, I got out my cardboard camera and took it all in.

So…I Have Now Been Electrocuted

This past Saturday as I was unplugging my computer from the wall in my room, the power adapter slipped and my finger slid onto the metal prongs of my computer plug. My first thought was, “S***, I just got shocked…” Then, “S***, this is wildly ironic because of one of my initial blog posts.”

The next day, my group and I boarded a bus heading for Gulu in Northern Uganda. This ride involved three days on the road, crossing over the Rwanda-Uganda border and overnight stays in Mbarara and Kampala, Uganda. Once arriving in Gulu, our academic director gave us instructions for our second “New Discovery” of the semester. At the beginning of our time in Kigali, we were split up into groups and were told to investigate a part of Kigali life and culture. This week in Gulu, we were tasked to do the same thing. While Gulu is much smaller than Kigali and English is much more widely spoken, our experiences over the last month clearly prepared us well for experiencing a new city and culture.

Throughout the “New Discovery” in Gulu, we were able to compare this city to Kigali and even think more generally about Ugandan versus Rwandan culture. Our travels here have already proven to me how much I have grown with the opportunities I have been privileged to receive. Even in Gulu I have experienced no culture shock or, for the sake of this blog post,  electrocution.

Our stay in Uganda will conclude this upcoming Saturday after a couple more days in Gulu, a trip to a Ugandan National Park on the Nile River (where we will see Lions and Zebras and Antelopes and Elephants and Hippos and Giraffes and Water Buffalo and Monkeys and Crocodiles and Rhinos and more), and a couple nights in Kampala (Uganda’s capital). I am so full of gratitude (and maybe a little electricity).

Bless the Rain Down in 53 Countries

When deciding to come to Rwanda, I knew much of the responses I would get would revolve around me going to Africa. I knew that I would have to correct those individuals and emphasis that I was specifically going to Rwanda, a country in Africa. Yes, I was going to Africa, but simply saying that dismisses the vast size and diversity within Africa. Before arriving in Rwanda I felt that talking so much about Africa as a single entity was detrimental to truly understanding the continent’s diversity. What I learned however is that knowing how to describe Africa correctly is the best way to understand its diversity.

After seeing a woman on the bus wearing an African necklace, I began to notice other instances of African pride in Rwanda. When I heard Toto’s “Africa” come on at the wedding last week, I was too intrigued not to do anything about it. I brought my curiosity to my Academic Director at SIT, Celine, and asked about the kind of pride that Rwandans have for Africa as a whole. She described how Pan-Africanism still very much exists in Rwanda and the majority of Africa. Unity is important for Africans, she explained. There is a shared culture in Africa that does unify the continent. However, she went on, the issue is when Africa is generalized to be the same something rather than share similar somethings. So yes, I am in Africa and I interact with African people in African culture; but more importantly, I am in Rwanda and I interact with unique Rwandan people in specific Rwandan culture. And even then, Rwanda is full of diversity.

As THE Sam Weinberg (my older brother) once said as a sweeping declaration at the Weinberg dinner table years ago: “Ignorant America Generalizes.” So, is it bad to identify Africa for what it is and what it shares? Certainly not. What perpetuates ignorance is when generalization demeans 1.1 billion people to being one person with one experience.

Check out the true size of Africa here: http://kai.subblue.com/en/africa.html 

Look! It’s been 1 month!

A Birthday and a Wedding

Last year on my 19th birthday, I had no idea that I would be celebrating my next birthday in Rwanda. Studying abroad here wasn’t even a thought in my head. Now, one month since arriving, I have celebrated my 20th birthday in the Land of a Thousand Hills. The greatest gift that my birthday gave me this year was an understanding that no matter where I am, I will be loved. Feeling such love from family and friends in the states, friends in Rwanda, and even friends elsewhere in the world was a magnificent way to spend my birthday. Facebook was a great way for my friends back at home to send their witty remarks on my birthday and for my friends studying abroad to do the same, and in one case send a birthday message from the top of the Eiffel Tower (thanks Elena). As for my friends here in Rwanda, they outdid themselves with an attempt to surprise me in the morning at school. The surprise could have been more successful if they hadn’t opened the bathroom door and revealed themselves standing in there with balloons in hand before they were ready, but I appreciated it nonetheless. Isn’t it great that no matter where you go there are caring, thoughtful people? At lunch at an amazing restaurant in Kigali, the SIT staff bought me a cake and I got “Happy Birthday” sung to me (my friends sang “Isabukuriunziza” earlier that day in Kinyarwanda class). When I was home from class that night, the well wishes from my family put a great end to a great day.

In addition to my wonderful birthday, I also got to experience a wedding the Rwandan way. My father’s cousin (my siblings still call him Uncle) was getting married yesterday. Weddings in Rwanda are much more than the ceremony that day and include seven important events. Among them are the engagement party, introduction (where dowry of 4-8 cows is paid from the man’s family to the woman’s), church ceremony, reception, and the day after (I don’t really know what this is called and my father had a hard time translating the idea to English but essentially it takes place the day after the first night together for the families to make sure everything is a-okay in the love-making department). Yesterday, was the ceremony and reception. The Christian ceremony was, for the most part, in English and was almost identical to the ceremonies I have attended in the United States. The reception on the other hand was almost entirely new to me. It began as most do, waiting for the wedding party, but then traditional Rwandan performers came into the large, beautifully lit tent filled with hundreds of guests, and performed traditional dances. The drumming was fascinating and the dancing was amazing to watch. Many of the dances revolve around the “Inyambo” or traditional Rwandan long-horned cow. After the music, toasts began from the families of the bride and groom, however the toasts seemed to never stop. Different groups of family are called before the couple to share words of well-wishes and bear gifts. We even ate during what I will call halftime of the toasts and gifts. In the end, the reception lasted for over five hours and with all of it being in Kinyarwanda, it was hard to understand what was going on but it was an experience I couldn’t have had elsewhere. While many of the guests left after the conclusion of the reception, my parents and I and many others stayed and danced the night away. It was a long day but was a great cultural experience. I hope to get my hands on some pictures soon.

The Woman I Will Never Forget

This week I met a woman that I will never forget. I will never forget her face. I will never forget the way she made me feel. I will never forget the lessons she taught me.

I met her atop one of the most beautiful hills in Rwanda, overlooking more hills and valleys of the countryside. I met her at the site of what was intended to be a technical school. She was sent to this location in 1994 to be protected from the harsh killings. She was among 50,000 that were told they would be protected. Within the first two weeks of her arrival, she had been refused food, water, and proper sanitation areas. Before she could starve to death though, those that said they would protect her arrived on site. Those people came to this school, a place considered safe, to slaughter the 50,000 Tutsis, including the woman I met. Within weeks, thousands upon thousands of bodies were piled into mass graves on the side of the hill. Then, French soldiers arrived as a part of Project Turquoise that successfully protected thousands of Hutu refugees that had been perpetrators of the genocide. These French soldiers placed their flag just feet away from where I met that woman, near where she had been brutally murdered, and played games of volleyball almost directly beside where the mass graves were still fresh with dead Tutsis. The French, knowing these atrocities, continued to provide help to the perpetrators and the government that began the killings. Once the French had left their post on the top of this hill, survivors of the genocide came upon the thousands of bodies buried and extracted them in order to preserve them.

I met that woman in that state of preservation, her body and face frozen in the clear expression of fear. Her mouth was wide open as if before her was an unimaginable monster. Her body was shriveled and white due to the lime used to preserve her and tell her story of her last minutes on earth. She was surrounded by many just like her on beds in this first room. There are 24 rooms just like it that house the bodies of just a fraction of those killed upon this hill of Murambi. I can do little justice to what I felt when I saw the bodies or smelled the combination of death and preservation. What I can do, though, is remember. I understand this post may seem graphic and depressing but there are still deniers of this genocide spreading lies across Rwanda, Africa, and the world. These memorials, like Murambi in Huye (formerly Butare), Rwanda are important to keep the stories of hundreds of thousands, including this woman’s, preserved. We get nowhere by dismissing or minimizing the real stories of history except to allow them to happen again and again. Reading this may be hard, and it has been hard writing it, but its importance is far beyond our discomfort. Thank you so much for following my discoveries here and please know that my spirit remains optimistic towards our future.

This week I met a woman that I will never forget. I will never forget her face. I will never forget the way she made me feel. I will never forget the lessons she taught me.