Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Place of Little Birds

After seeing Rwanda’s past, it was exciting to experience it’s present. In the short time that I was there, everyone I spoke to managed a curiously peaceful outlook on what the genocide meant in the context of their daily lives. It seems to be an evil that they learned from and that’s that. Forgiveness over animosity, bitterness and hatred. But, beyond the cultural implications, it made the rest of the trip feel like an interactive history lesson. When we left the big city for Lake Kivu, we noticed that most places where mass killings happened were turned into museums, memorials or learning centers. It was amazing, but truthfully, we went to Kivu for a completely different vibe. 

We spent an afternoon getting lost in countryside in a cramped, sparsely cushioned bus. Tucked back into the nooks and crannies of Rwanda, we found Lake Kivu with a dozen steel blue fingers stretching into that patchwork landscape I loved so much. Despite the sudden downpours we had become accustomed to, we decided to hire a boat for a day trip around one of the many islands dotting the water. Amohoro or “Peace Island” they called it. It was pimped out with a restaurant, lodging, a private beach and even monkeys. So we saved our appetites for fresh tilapia and gathered our books and swim suits for a relaxing day on a deserted island.

Upon arrival, we quickly learned that the restaurant was abandoned, the lodging was destroyed, and the ONE monkey we saw terrorized us by baring his teeth and then, proceeded to masturbate in front of us. I guess he either hated us or really liked us. It got weird, but at least it didn’t rain. In the end, we managed to scare off our predator and relax in the sun for a few hours, so it's all good.

In a few days, Lake Kivu shrunk in the rearview mirror of another crowded bus as we crossed back into Uganda to visit "the place of little birds", or Lake Bunyonyi. A boat picked us up in the graying evening and took us to Byoona Amagara, our little bird paradise. Every time I turn over a new stone in this world, I swear it’s the most beautiful one I’ve seen. But, this one will be difficult to top. It lived up to its name with colorful gems of birds flitting about, filling the otherwise silent air with their lovely layers of song. Our first day was spent rowing a dug out log canoe between islands splayed out before us as if a handful of rocks was accidentally tossed into this giant pool and left there to grow wild. Perfectly reckless, as only nature can be. And on the second day, we hiked all over those wild islands, through hills terraced with banana groves and visited the massive families that tended to them.

I left this land of lakes with a head full of golden silence. I could have lived out the rest of my days hopping around those islands, but instead I’ll keep them with me and relive it when real life gets too loud.

1. Kibuye Genocide Memorial Church where 11,000 Tutsi's were killed in 1994
2. A lone fisherman on Lake Kivu
3. Rwandan shores
4. Kat on Peace Island
5. Monkey on a boat
6. Buns and a braid
7. Monkey in a tree
8. First impressions of Bunyonyi
9. The good life
10. Fellow rowers
11. Exploring a far off island
12. Our view for breakfast, lunch, dinner and beers
13. The other side of our island
14. Into the bananas
15. Under the bananas
16. Hey, Mom

Monday, October 20, 2014


Just a week after landing in Uganda, I packed up what little I had unpacked and took a midnight bus to Kigali, Rwanda. For those of you that don’t know about the little gem that is Rwanda, let me give you the low down. The entire country is no larger than Maryland, but it’s insane what they’ve managed to pack into their borders: a handful of dreamy lakes, a big portion of everyone’s favorite endangered mountain gorillas, and endless, intricate farmland stretching over a world’s worth of rolling hills in what I’m sure is Mother Earth’s favorite patchwork blanket. It is this last earthly delight, the zigs and zags of every shade of life imaginable that had me mesmerized once we crossed the border. 

After 15 hours of drifting back and forth from sleep to scenery, I truly couldn’t tell where the hills ended and my dreams began. I kept seeing myself within the frames of a film and could nearly hear the narrator’s script describe our winding journey into the green. But, my daze ended when we reached Kigali, Rwanda’s sprawling capital. 

Kigali is a proper city with stoplights and everything. In just two days, we managed to see the entire thing from the backs of motorbikes and the tops of hills. Tiny, wooden houses were packed into the carved out slopes, seeming to balance precariously on top of one another. Like an ant hill in the middle of a forest, Kigali is a sudden explosion of life in an otherwise mellow country. 

But, like any other visitor, the most memorable and astonishing and heartbreaking part of our time there was the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. Even after learning about the genocide in school, I had never fully understood it until that day. The irrational ethnic division, the atrocities that built up to the final outcome, and the horrendous role the Western world played. It had all escaped me, blurred together simply as tragic history not to be repeated. But seeing the facts, the figures, the timeline of events laid out before me made my head spin. How could this have happened? How could we have turned our backs on human beings like that? From the beginning, it was our fault. Us, the outsider, those who rule with no understanding, those who must claim everything for themselves and ruin what they can’t hold. Nevermind race or nationality, this was a problem caused by ignorant dominance, imperialism. Blindness. 

I sat, surrounded by skulls with holes and cracks so precise you could feel the moment of impact. Femurs and clavicles shattered. Floral summer dresses taken from anonymous bodies. Piles of shoes and keychains and combs and toys; things that used to belong to people that should still be alive. Then, I entered a room where rows of photos of victims hung heavy with scribbled notes from their survivors. Tearful children who never knew their parents, and regretful parents who never got to know their children. Needless to say, I didn’t make it out the same. 

Kigali broke my heart, my perception of humanity. I tried to imagine the frank internal monologues of world leaders. I tried to imagine what was happening in the mental haze of the Hutu as they brutally murdered their Tutsi neighbors and friends. It made me sick, and it made me question our minds. So fragile, so receptive to persuasions of evil, so easily apathetic. Our flaws are magnified in masses. We are so weak, it’s frightening. However, it’s humbling to remember that we are incredibly imperfect as a species. There’s endless room for growth, for betterment. Evolution hasn’t stopped yet, people; remember that! Keep your eyes open for ways to improve our condition. Keep love in your heart and justice in mind. And open your eyes to the world around you while you’re at it; these kinds of things are still happening despite what we claim we’ve learned. There are atrocities happening right now; don’t fall easily into the idea that we’re so far beyond our past. If you want to learn more about this dark time of human history, read this

1. Pictures from inside of a bus don't do this place justice. 
2. Kigali.
3. Truth.
4. The mellow end of the taxi park.
5. Rainy night on the back of a ticky-ticky
6. Little houses on the hillside.
7. A boy and some hills.
8. "Let us prepare future generations so that they do not experience what we have experienced". It didn't seem right to take photos at the memorial, but this was the last wall I saw before leaving. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Breathing 101

It’s incredibly easy to point out the gaping holes in the American education system. Our US-centric way of thinking infects our classrooms, keeping them void of foreign language, global geography and even an accurate world history. The arts are deteriorating, collateral damage in our power hungry, left brain race with China. And don’t even get me started on the quality of extracurriculars and electives. But last year, we ranked 35th, 25th and 28th in the areas we strive to perfect (proof). It doesn’t make any sense! Yet still, some mixture of guilt and gratitude hits me as I walk into schools in Walukuba, the village where my organization works. 

You can hear their chants from the road outside. Each classroom has an off key chorus: weirdly melodic, yet just plain sweet, layers of tiny voices reading the words written on their chalkboard. The charm, however, is deceiving. What those songs really mean is regurgitated information, uniformity, mindlessness. Teacher writes the lessons on the blackboards and the most adorable robots you’ve ever seen read them back with one voice. One thought process. No room for individuality, no space for thinking differently, no real understanding. 

The kids don’t know any better, they’re honestly just happy to have enough money for school fees. But I do. I know. It makes my blood boil and it makes it difficult for me to do my job effectively. We teach them one way of thinking and every hour of their day they’re hammered with the opposition. And these kids are sharp, masters of practicality. When I pass eight year olds tending to their family plots or taking care of their infant siblings, I often marvel that they’re tougher and wiser than me in so many ways. Yet, they can be silly. They can be artistic. And man, they’re insightful at times. They just don’t understand how that could ever relate to their education. And I'm overwhelmed. I mean, how do you teach creative thinking? I feel like I'm teaching people how to breathe. But each moment I hang my head in frustration and disbelief and heavy helplessness reinforces how badly our program is needed. It’s not perfect; we’re constantly adapting our curriculum as we see fit and I won’t lie, I think there’s a lot of work to be done. Expansion, depth, all elements of growth, really. But it’s the least I can do.

As easy as it may be to leave things status quo and spend the year galavanting around collecting foreign friends and photographs, I can’t walk away from this knowing I could improve it. I can’t walk away from these tiny, little human minds that deserve to develop properly in a country that deserves to develop properly. Because they’re the way it’s going to happen in the long run. I mean, if you want to truly tend to the garden, you’ve got to start with the seeds. 

Yes, I know I’m an optimist. Yes, I know that I’m young and dumb. Yes, I know that I haven’t been in Uganda or development long enough to really understand how tiny of a drop I am in this ocean of resistance. But, I like it that way. Let me dream.

1. Part of the Day Star Academy campus
2. Everyone's curious when we come around
3. Masese Co. fourth graders and the famous Ugandan crane
4. Getting Day Star students pumped up on the first day of lessons
5. Trying to find shapes in the clouds. They thought we were insane.
6. "Portrait of Miss Kate" by Patience