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Back In Rwanda Sooner Than Expected

January 10, 2011

On December 14th I left Rwanda with the intentions of leaving indefinitely, but on January 7th I found myself at Newark Airport boarding a plane with the destination of Kigali. The situation in Rwanda improved and my return became a possibility, so I jumped at the opportunity.

I thought this time it would be easier leaving my family and friends and the comforts of home, but it is proving just a challenging.

I will be in Rwanda for the next two months, until March, and will be completing my internship with Generation Rwanda.

The next two months are sure to bring stimulating conversations with my Rwandan friends, scenic hikes up Mount Kigali, challenging cross-cultural exchanges and experiences in general that will make for interesting blogging, so see you on the blogosphere!



My Last Moments in Rwanda: At Least for Now

December 14, 2010

At 8:45pm tonight I am flying back to the US indefinitely. Due to unexpected circumstances, my current situation in Rwanda is not ideal. Events have transpired that have put my security at risk. So I am packing up my bags for now and heading back state side.

My decision not to come back to Rwanda after the Christmas holiday was not an easy one. I have had the privilege of living in an amazing country and meeting the most inspiring people, some of which have become life long friends. The time I have spent in Rwanda has, as one might expect, changed me as a person and made a lasting impact on my life. It is not something that is easy to walk away from and I will continue to blog about my experiences in Rwanda after I return home.

However, I am certain the passion for Rwanda and her people that this visit has instilled in me will bring me back sooner than later.

Until then, turongera Rwanda!


Don’t Ask Because It Doesn’t Exist

December 10, 2010

In light of the US Senate’s floundering on repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy that requires gay men and lesbians to keep their sexuality a secret or face discharge, I have been thinking about homosexuality or the lack there of in Rwanda.

In Rwanda there is an accepted denial of homosexuality. People face extreme social ridicule and exclusion, and would have faced legal persecution if the Rwandan civil society and the international community had not intervened to stop a law from passing that would have criminalized homosexuality. There is also a common misconception that any homosexuality in Rwanda is due to the influence of the whites man’s culture. In short, there is no visible gay or lesbian community, or much of a national debate on the subject for that matter. As far as most Rwandans are concerned, homosexuality doesn’t exist in their country so their is nothing to ask about or tell.

Yet, in Rwandan culture it is highly accepted for men to be openly affectionate physically towards each other. It is common for men to walk hand in hand and to embrace in public. Often you will see men sitting on each others laps. It is more acceptable for men to show physical affection in public than it is for heterosexual couples. These acts that would be interpreted as homosexual behavior in the United States are considered a sign of comradeship. Rwandan men, and women to some extant, express their friendship through close physical contact with one another, which potentially is more acceptable because of the societal denial of homosexuality.

Rwanda however is not alone in its denial of homosexuality. Its neighbor to the north, Uganda, made news in 2009 for considering a law that would make homosexuality punishable by death even though it was already illegal under colonial-era laws and punishable by incarceration of up to 14 years. Yet, not accepting homosexuality is not just an African problem. The United States, the country who claims to protect human rights and liberties on its shores and abroad, is still struggling with accepting homosexuality and giving people the rights they deserve as citizens.

Unfortunately, not only Rwanda but the United States has a long way to come in accepting homosexuality but at least in America it is part of the national debate.



Everybody Loves a Jewish Girl: Used Clothing in Rwanda

December 9, 2010

On my way home from work today I saw a girl wearing a tee shirt that said “do do” inside the outline of a Dodo bird, another person wearing a shirt that said “This is my Halloween Costume,” and a man around twenty years old wearing a tee shirt that read “The American Girl Place.” My roommate has reported seeing another Rwandan man around twenty years old wearing a shirt that said “Everybody Loves a Jewish Girl” and recently a female student came into my office sporting a “World’s Best Dad” tee shirt. These shirts are not just a fashion faux pas or the inability of the wearer to grasp the cultural context of the shirt’s origin, but the side effect of Westerners donating their clothing to charity.

In Rwanda, it isn’t just hipsters who wear used clothing but almost everyone. Wearing used clothing is acceptable in almost every level of society, and since there is a large demand, there is a supply. When you walk into a market, tables overflowing with used clothing greet you. Stores sell used clothing right next to new, and there are shoe stores who only stock used items.

This clothing supports a multimillion dollar industry across Africa that more often than not comes from multinational charitable organizations. Americans and other westerners donate their clothing to charity and what the immediate market cannot absorb gets shipped over to Africa. This act of kindness not only makes for some comical tee shirt encounters, but undermines the local textile industry and culture.

Since the clothing is donated and acquired through charity,  it is sold for cheaper than textiles that are made in-country even through it is shipped from across the ocean. This severely undermines the development of a countries’ textile industry and ability to sustain itself, and also helps to export western culture and nurture the colonial ideal that the white man’s goods are superior.

This phenomena also overwhelming points to the fact that America and its’ western counterparts consume enough new clothing to create a supply of used clothing that not only meets the immediate market’s needs but all of Africa’s. This is probably not something to brag about.

I do not think western consumerism will change over night, but potentially the used clothing industry needs to reevaluate what to do with the merchandise that cannot be sold in the immediate market.



Used shoes for sale in the Nyamirambo market.

A Rwandan Wedding

November 17, 2010

In Rwanda it seems like there is always a wedding happening, especially in the months of November and December. Couples have three wedding ceremonies – traditional, church and civil – and this past Sunday I attended the traditional wedding ceremony of my neighbor Janette.

Early Sunday afternoon Jacqui, Janette’s sister, came over to our house and dressed Mary, Helaina and I in the traditional dress of the Rwandan woman, a mushanana. A mushanana is made out of a silk material and has a long wrap skirt and a sash that drapes over the shoulder. Rwandan women can technically wear mushanana whenever, but they are mainly worn for formal occasions like weddings.

Once we were dressed, we went next door to Janette’s aunt’s house where the wedding was being held. The traditional Rwandan ceremony is held at the home and her aunt’s courtyard housed three big white tents with rows of chairs underneath for guests, and a small tent for the bridal party that was decorated with faux leopard print fabric and numerous handwoven baskets, Rwanda’s traditional handicraft. Two of the large tents were opposing each other on either side of the bridal tent and were for the bride and groom’s families. The respective families sat opposite one another and the first part of the ceremony focused on their getting to know each other.

When we entered the courtyard we were shepherded to seats in the front row of where Janette’s family was seated, and since the ceremony was in Kinyarwanda, one of her family members translated for us. From our front row seats we watched as male representatives from the bride and grooms families discussed why the couple should marry and introduced the families. During this time the families also exchanged gifts and everyone received a soda to drink. After the male representative from Janette’s family agreed that the couple should marry, the groom, who was hidden behind where his family was sitting, was called forward to meet Janette’s family. After the introductions were complete the male representative from the groom’s family presented Janette’s family with the dowry of a cow, which is only symbolic in the urban areas where the family gives money. Two men then recited poems about the importance of cows in Rwandan society.

After the men finish reciting poems, the rest of the ceremony focused on Janette. Her procession was led by women, young and old, from her family who brought out gourds of milk for the grooms family, followed by four traditional women dancers. Then Janette proceeded down the aisle. She was dressed in a white and gold mushanana and wore gold jewelry in her hair. Janette was followed by a matron of honor and four bridesmaids that carried gifts for the groom’s family, and four spearmen. After Janette was seated next to the groom the ceremony proceeded quickly. Once Janette gave gifts to the grooms family and both the bride and groom agreed to wed, there was more dancing and everyone received a plate of food. After everyone finished eating the wedding party retired to the home and the ceremony was over.

After the ceremony Jack, Janette’s brother, asked me if I would have a traditional Rwandan ceremony when I got married. I told him I was not sure what type of wedding ceremony I would be having, but that I would love to wear a mushanana again!

Pictures from the wedding are below! Enjoy!



Jacqui dressing me in my mushanana!

Mary, Helaina and me in our mushananas!

Cows traditionally represent wealth in Rwandan culture and their milk is highly valued. Above is a picture of the women in Janette's family presenting gourds of milk to the groom's family.

Traditional dancers at the wedding.

Janette, the bride, not only had bridesmaids in her party but also spearmen! The man in the middle is her brother and my neighbor Jack!

The beautiful bride and groom!

Generation Rwanda

November 10, 2010

I have been in Rwanda for two months. During this time I have hiked Mount Kigali twice, traveled to Kibuye, rafted down the Nile and done just about everything else in between, most of which I have blogged about. Yet, the one topic I have yet to cover is what my internship with Generation Rwanda is all about.

Generation Rwanda, formally known as Orphans of Rwanda, is an INGO (international non-governmental organization) based out of New York City and Kigali, Rwanda that helps orphans and other socially vulnerable young people pursue a university education and ultimately become the future leaders of Rwanda with the aim of promoting economic development and social reconciliation. Generation Rwanda provides their scholars holistic support with a full scholarship to university in Rwanda, housing, a living stipend, health services and a rigorous training program.

As the Career Development Assistant my focus is on the training programs. I collaborate with the Career Development Officer to run workshops on interviewing skills, professionalism, job searching and writing cover letters and CVs. The career development workshops are geared at preparing Generation Rwanda scholars to excel in the job market upon graduation. I also teach a ten week basic computer course three times a week for the new students who joined Generation Rwanda in September and are currently completing a pre-university training program. Our class has covered everything from what a computer mouse is to how to attach a document to an email. The aim is to give students the necessary computer skills so they can excel at university and in the workforce.

My internship with Generation Rwanda allows me to work directly with young people in Rwanda who are living in poverty and have usually lost one if not both parents in the 1994 genocide. The students, who are mostly around my age, come from backgrounds that I cannot begin to relate to. Yet, we share one major commonality, a desire to have a positive impact on our world and those around us. Generation Rwanda students aspire to be everything from midwives to government officials and the scholarship program is helping them achieve their goals.

Ultimately, the development of Rwanda depends on Rwandans. Educating young people to be the leaders of their country is a tangible way to have a meaningful and sustainable impact on the future of Rwanda.

To learn more about Generation Rwanda visit


– Caitlin

My students working hard in computer class!

Questionable Transportation: A Journey to Kampala and Down the Nile River

November 9, 2010

At 5:30am on Friday morning I boarded a bus headed to Kampala, Uganda. The seats were surprisingly plush, there were even overhead compartments but the speed the driver was going almost made my eyes water. I had paid $14.00 to be jostled around for 10 hours, all the while fearing for my life as the driver drove at alarming speeds and weaved around other vehicles, and sometimes people, on the road.

After a fear inducing 10 hour bus trip and a surprisingly easy border crossing, I only had to pay $50 for a single entry visa into Uganda, I arrived in Kampala. I flagged down a moto with my travel buddies, Mary and Helaina, and we headed off to our destination. While riding on the moto without a helmet (drivers are not required to supply helmets for passengers in Uganda like they are in Rwanda) I was confronted by an African city much larger and grittier than Kigali. There were cows eating grass in the roundabouts, potholes in the streets and trash scattered, well, everywhere; three things that you never see in Kigali. There were also large shopping plazas, restaurants of every kind and droves of expats. Perched on the back of a moto that was weaving in and out of traffic I got the feeling Kampala was both everything Kigali aspired to be and everything it wanted to avoid.

The next day I got a more rural vantage point of Uganda from a raft crashing through rapids in the Nile River. To raft down the Nile I was only required to sign a waiver and strap on a life jacket and yellow helmet, I did not even have to prove I could swim. After my group of eight practiced flipping our raft, getting back into the raft and free floating down a rapid, we were ready to go down the river. We crashed through category 5 rapids, which are the largest you can commercially raft, and got tossed into the Nile. All the while we passed by people who lived along the banks of the river and whose livelihoods are inextricably intertwined with the Nile. We also floated by a hydroelectric dam under construction, which when completed will not only flatten all the rapids upstream of the dam but will inevitably disrupt the lives of and displace the people who live along the Nile. At best, those displaced by the rising waters caused by the dam can hope to relocate to a dwelling that will benefit from the new electricity source.

There is also speculation that eventually the whole Nile River will be dammed and since the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria, in located in Uganda that means they will control the water source of every other country dependent on the Nile’s water. So potentially not only the poor of Uganda and the ecosystem of the Nile will suffer from the damming of the river, but also the millions of people in other countries who depend on the water.

The next day, after safely making it out the of Nile, I climbed back on to another bus. On the journey back to Kigali I not only enjoyed another life threatening bus ride, one that was highlighted by a light catching on fire and the smell of burning oil and imminent doom, but I also caught another glimpse of just how different the cultures of Rwanda and Uganda are. Boarding the bus in Kampala was a much more hectic experience and when crossing the border back into Rwanda, customs was more structured. On the 10 hour bus ride back to Kigali from Kampala, Rwanda proved itself to be much reserved and orderly compared to Uganda.

In short, traveling by questionable means, be it bus, moto or a river raft, is not the safest but it does give the traveler an interesting vantage point.

Below are pictures from my rafting trip down the Nile River! Enjoy!


– Caitlin

I am third from the front on the left! Click on the photos to make them larger!


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