The Land of a Thousand Hills

Rwanda is often called The Land of a Thousand Hills, and for good reason. No matter where you are in the evening, a valley of endless lights is present before you. “Kigali by night,” the locals tell me over and over. It is mesmerizing. As my trip comes to an end, Rwandans have asked me how I have liked their country. Truthfully, I respond that I have loved it, that it is a beautiful place filled with wonderful people.

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While rapid change has taken place here over the last 18 years, there is still much to be done. There is a blanket of death covering this small country, as everyone here has somehow been affected by the genocide. Many are sole survivors of entire families, some are orphans who became head of households at a young age, there are those who were purposefully infected by HIV, and many who are psychologically disturbed by the utterly horrific events that occurred. Additionally, there continue to be many needless deaths due to lack of health infrastructure.

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There are however, incredible projects being undertaken here that have seen record-breaking results. Partners in Health came to Rwanda in 2005, and the HIV rates have dropped from 17% to current day 3% of those tested. Efforts to reduce mother to child infection have been nearly 100% successful. The Access Project and many other smaller scale operations aim to create efficient and reliable health centers in all areas of the country. Family planning, education and nutrition have become priorities. Most importantly, a full circle approach has been taken to create sustainable results.

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Rwanda is a rich country with such great potential. Amazing coffee, tea, fruits, and beautiful hand made crafts are all cultivated here. Some of the worlds last silverback gorillas inhabit Rwanda’s national parks. The people are warm, loving, loyal, intelligent, and hard working. I hope you all have a chance to visit The Land of a Thousand Hills to see for yourself!


How $15 started one Kenyan man on the road to Harvard

Just $15 might seem like very little to us, but in many African countries it means the difference between a chance at an inspiring career and a life spent picking coffee beans. Here in Rwanda, as in most of Africa, secondary school (or high school) is not free. Bright and talented children growing up in rural areas, often living on less than $1 a day, are simply unable to afford to continue their education.

Chris Mburu is the poster child of what a difference just a ‘small gift’ can make. After passing through heavy security at the UN Rwanda headquarters, I found my way to his office where I was greeted with his huge smile and instant warmth. Growing up in rural Kenya, Chris was smart, but was often kicked out of school for not paying his fees. He didn’t wear a pair of shoes until he was 12 years old. Randomly, a Swedish woman chose Chris and began paying $15 per term for his school fees. She made sure he completed his secondary school. Chris is now a Harvard educated human rights lawyer and has been working for the UN for over 20 years.

An incredible man with an amazing story, you can watch Chris’ story in the documentary, “A Small Act.” He is living proof that just one small donation to a person somewhere in the world can truly change their life. Chris also feels strongly that SeeYourImpact’s model is the both effective and meaningful – donors cannot only change a life with very little, but they can also meet the life they changed.

Gashora Girls Academy

On Sunday, we traveled to Gisenyi to pick up a Joslyn, a new student, from her home and take her to the Gashora Academy for the first time. Gisenyi is a town on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which lies among daunting volcanoes and the beautiful shores of Lake Kivu. Despite the continued upheaval in the DRC, this Rwandan town is peaceful and thriving.

Here in Rwanda, educational opportunities are determined by a single national exam.  Each year 28,000 Rwandan students take the National Secondary Education Ordinary Level Test at the end of 9th grade. Admission to Secondary School is very competitive; fewer than 13,000 students can be admitted into the 734 secondary schools. The scores on this exam determine if a student can continue on to secondary school.

In the case the Gashora Girls’ Academy, phone calls are made to girls with high test scores and offered a spot in the school. They then have very little time to make a decision to leave their families behind and travel to Gashora, as often secondary school starts less than a week after they know their scores.

We arrived just in time to see Joslyn packing up the last of her belongings in her modest room. Unsure of the next time they would see her (Gashora is at least four hours away on the DRC/Burundi border) her family hovered as she prepared for the adventure.

Joslyn’s older sister even spoke English, and promptly asked if we could be Facebook friends and if I liked Chris Brown – the last thing I expected in rural Rwanda!  At 18, her sister was the oldest of six, and the newest family addition was barely 6 months old. While the mentality of having many children to run the family farm is slowly changing here, many families still have large numbers of children.

After Joslyn said goodbye to her family and friends we were off for the long drive to Gashora. All 90 new girls were arriving for the first time, and the small campus was bustling. The girls are some of the more intelligent young women in the country, and they all have huge dreams to be doctors, engineers, and political leaders. Rwanda Girls’ Initiative is making a difference in the entire country by giving young girls the hope and tools they need to be successful!

Mama Mugisha

Today I went to visit Gardens for Health International.  They focus on nutrition for families and helping improve the 45% rate of malnourishment for Rwandan children. GHI are located about 30 minutes outside of Kigali, and have an awesome office with views overlooking the city.

I immediately got a great feel from them and the work they are doing. The grounds are bustling. Workers are tending to the crops and poking holes in plastic bottles for irrigation. Employees are busy on their computers. Rwandan women are cooking up a homegrown feast in the handmade pizza oven and outdoor kitchen. Local community members stop by for a snack and to say hello.

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GHI is now completely focused on nutrition and helping improve the 45% rate of malnourishment for Rwandan children. They work with government run health centers that refer malnourished families. The results of their well-researched and clearly proven program are really amazing.

Mama’s amazing photo is a well engrained visual in my mind. To see her walk up to the GHI office with one baby strapped to her back and the other in her arms was a surreal moment. We were unable to have any semblance of a conversation due to the language barrier, but Mama was extremely grateful to me – and to all of you – for what we have done for her. She sends her love back to Seattle.

Mama, myself, and about 30 other affiliates of GHI gathered for lunch outside in the shade. All three meals are cooked and served to the staff, workers, and community each day. This last November, they even prepared a delicious Thanksgiving feast for over 1,000 people! I thoroughly enjoyed my time visiting Gardens for Health, and hope we all do our part to ensure that they continue to have such an impact on the community.

Sleeping at the school

Last night I stayed out at the school. The power was out almost the entire night. Pitch-blackness, malaria carrying mosquitos, and hot air is the norm for sleeping out here in the countryside by the lake. This morning the power was still not back on, leaving frustrated staff and students disconnected from the web.

Tuesday was a national holiday in Rwanda called <em>Heroes Day </em>during which the country celebrates the heroes of its past. The girls here at the school took turns speaking about their favorite heroes and they were even allowed to speak in Kinyarwandan instead of English.

This afternoon I had the honor of playing basketball with the team. I had such a good time. The girls worked hard and were very competitive, something I can certainly appreciate!  As a former college basketball player, I even got to teach them some new drills for practice, and these gals are some quick learners!

This evening we met with all the teachers in addition to Soozi and Shal. They are very dedicated to this project and have certainly persevered to make it happen. Well, off to do some more work and get to bed.

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Gashora Health Center

Yesterday morning we drove back out to Gashora from Kigali, and our car stalled about half way. We sat on the side of the road for 30 minutes, just enough time to gather quite a following of interested bystanders. We were picked up by a friend, and driven the rest of the way to the school. I continued on to the small town of Gashora to visit the Health Center and learn about The Access Project – a country-wide undertaking which aims to improve health infrastructure here in Rwanda.

The Gashora Health Center, through RwandaWorks and The Access Project, is a newly constructed building (2009) which serves the community. It consists of hospital care for men, women, and children, a maternity ward, preventative care, and HIV/AIDS testing and treatment. It treats about 150 patients a day and sees nearly 100 births every month. Since The Access Project started, there are close to zero home births as most women deliver at the Health Center. Women go through the birthing process without any family or friends present and without any painkillers. They are sent home after 72 hours of observation.

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The Health Center also boasts a state of the art pharmaceutical technology, which helps to alert the pharmacy when drugs are close to their expiration date, when they have expired, and when their supply of a drug is running low. This helps save countless hours and ensure that the pharmacy is well stocked and efficient.

After the health center visit, I returned to the Girls’ Academy and had lunch with the staff. A typical fare of beans, rice, beets, onions and papaya was served. After lunch I spent more time observing the classrooms and taking pictures of the girls’. I also listened in on conversations about organic agriculture and how to best grow crops in the school garden.

After classes, around 2:30PM, the girls’ start their “jobs” and a frenzy of cleaning and organizing began. At 3:30, they headed to their clubs, which consist of French, dance, leadership, entrepreneurship, and debate. I was especially impressed with the singing and dancing, as well as the conversation during the leadership club. The girls were discussing issues of overpopulation and poor leadership and bringing up solutions to these problems in their own country and beyond. I am moved by their incredibly mature and well-informed perspectives of both Rwanda and the world beyond.