Saturday, 29 December 2007

The muzungu family has arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, muzungu means “white person” in Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda. We encountered no violence on our way to the airport, but that’s just because it was early. We had been talking to our drivers and guides and knew there would be some trouble resulting from the recent election. The current president of Kenya was losing in early polls, losing by a lot, but when the final ballots were counted he won. Tribes usually vote along tribal lines, and many people felt the president had fixed the election so he could win. We are saddened by the current violence, we had heard about and seen the good direction Kenya was heading in, how the roads had been paved and many improvements could be seen.  We will keep watching the news, since we have to pass back through Nairobi next Thursday.

Our main reason for coming here was to meet two girls that we sponsor through Africa New Life Ministries (ANLM) and see firsthand the good work that this organization is doing in Rwanda. Charles, the president of ANLM, and Fred, his brother and one of the pastors, met us at the airport and got us to our hotel. After spreading out for a while, giddy with the knowledge we will be here for five whole days in one place, we took a drive with Charles to see the new Dream Center site.

It is so encouraging, after encountering so many children and adults begging for money in other places and feeling the hopelessness that buying one necklace or giving a pen is not going to change that person’s life, to see real change taking place here in Rwanda. The Dream Center will be many things, a place for the ANLM staff to office, a hall that can be used for worship, a center for carpentry and seamstress training for adults who never attended school, a gathering place for street children to get a hot meal, and a high school for bright young street kids with no money to go to school.

In Rwanda, you have to pay for school, even for a public school. Those who don’t have the money, can’t send their kids to school, and even those who can scrape together the money to send their kids to the public school are often not getting a really good education. Many public schools don’t have the money or resources to educate their students properly, and when the national exams are taken, the public school kids fail, while the private school kids pass. The Dream Center will allow older kids who have shown promise and determination, the chance to get a good education, and a chance at passing the national exam so that they can get into college.

Right now the Dream Center is a large, grassy plot of ground, some tropical trees, a handful of old buildings that will eventually be torn down per the city’s instructions, and a great lookout to the city of Rwanda. The foundation is being laid for the first set of buildings, the offices and a large multi-purpose hall. They could also rent this hall out for weddings, producing income that can go towards completing the other buildings on the campus. Weddings are big business here in Rwanda. From our hotel room balcony, we watched a parade of brides and their entourages get their pictures taken in the beautiful gardens out front. Little girls in frilly white dresses skipped around, lacy white socks pulled up their dark legs while tropical shadows played amongst the spectacle.

As we drove to the Dream Center we passed more brides or wedding parties, some of them in disarray as they walked back home, their ties undone and their shirts untucked. Maybe there were more weddings than usual, being so close to Christmas. Charles tells us that there are more and more weddings, Rwanda has a young generation and most people choose to get married rather than cohabitate. They looked like Easter eggs, the bridesmaids in pretty pastels with hats on their heads.

At the Dream Center site, we walked into one of the older buildings. A couple of sewing machines were at the entrance, the program where women are taught skills so that they can find jobs has been interrupted due to their previous landlord kicking them out. The same has happened to the space where the street kids met twice a week for a free meal, songs, games, and a place to get off the street for a while. They have also been relocated to the old building we entered, beyond the sewing machines there were rows and rows of benches, used during the street kids program. Space is a hot commodity in Kigali, a landlord can kick you out with very little notice.

Nate was confused about who these street kids were, and asked Charles about it. Charles explained that in the slums many children live without parents, either because the parents have died, deserted, or the kids have run away from an abusive home situation. They fend for themselves with their brothers and sisters. They beg for money, and then often make bad decisions about what they buy with their meager earnings. They are hungry and desperate, with no hope for their future. They can come to the Dream Center for a free meal, that’s what brings them in. They find hope in hearing about Jesus, they find love and attention from the staff who organize games and songs for them. It is a place for them to dream.

They help as many as they can, placing some of the younger kids in an orphan home, where they live with a “Mama” who takes care of them. The older kids are given carpentry training so that they can learn a skill and get a job. Charles explained to Nate, and the rest of us, that a fifteen year old boy who has never gone to school can’t be put in a first grade classroom, that sometimes there are problems with the older kids. They’ve lived hard lives. So, they give them a chance to get out of the bad cycle they’ve been in. With their carpentry skills they can find jobs and make a little money. They live with other street kids, and together they may earn enough to pay rent and live together, a small family of kids making their way in a hard world. There were several young men working at the construction site, laying the foundation for the first building of the Dream Center, graduates of the carpentry school that are being given a chance to use their new skills.

We left the building site and Charles drove us through the nearby slums, where many of the kids in the program come from. They have only to walk up the hill a ways to find the Dream Center at the top of the hill, with its view of Kigali below. The road we drove along was unpaved, and pitted with deep craters that bounced us up and down. The kids thought this was just fine, and after the rough roads on the safari, it was nothing new. What was new was the scenery outside the car window.

The slums consist of very poor houses, their walls made of mud and rusting roofs, often pieced together with bits of plastic to fill up the holes. The floors are mud. There are no satellite dishes, no electricity, poor bathrooms. And yet the people, they are so friendly. We were a big attraction, or rather our white skin was a big attraction. Especially the kids. Charles explained that very few muzungu children visit the slums of Rwanda, and when they do they get a lot of attention.

Nearly everyone stopped what they were doing to wave and smile and call “muzungu!” as we drove along. Businesses carried on along the road. Men repaired a row of broken bicycles, boys sold bananas, and women took care of their small children. Often, small children took care of smaller children. A little boy, just barely able to sit on his own, chewed on a stick as he watched us pass with wide eyes. Girls shyly waved hello, one with a little baby strapped to her back, and then giggled to each other. Alayna loved waving through the open window and smiling, and the boys waved to everybody as well.

After driving through the slums, we were deposited back at the hotel for an evening to ourselves. We ate dinner, played a few rounds of Emperor, read a little Doctor Doolittle (our current read aloud) and found time for everyone to say a prayer before bed.  After not getting to bed until 9 or later every night on the safari, this seemed a luxury. And after driving through the slums and imagining all the broken families they hold, we had much to be thankful for.


Sunday, 30 December 2007

This morning we woke before the chickens. The sun rises very early here in Kigali, I woke up wide awake before six o’clock. The world was bright outside, I took some time out on the balcony to read a while and pray while the rest of the city slept, it was so peaceful. Once everyone roused themselves we all took showers and got ourselves spiffed up for church. Alayna and I wore our skirts for the first time on the trip, and were really excited about getting “all dressed up”.

Fred picked us up and brought us to the small church, which is on the backside of their offices. It consists of white plastic lawn chairs for the congregation and a small stage for the pastor, some blue material was swagged across the front and a Christmas tree was decorated for the season. First, some kids came and did a skit, acting out the Christmas story. A bit of white ribbon tied around a head became a halo, and we smiled to hear the familiar words of the angel as she came to the shepherds, straight from Luke 2 which we just memorized.

Everyone sang some worship songs, and even though they weren’t in English, we really enjoyed just listening to everyone’s voices swelling and filling up the small church. Prayers were different than back home, everyone would pray out loud, their own prayers, their voices becoming a babble of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication, all around us. The kids were wide-eyed, and so was I. This was a different way of worshipping God, one I didn’t entirely understand. What I did understand is that the Holy Spirit was among these people, it was in this place, and while we didn’t speak the same language, we worshipped the same God.

The service we attended was preached in English, and then translated into Kinyarwanda. First Emma (the pastor preaching that morning, his name is short for Emmanuel) would say a few words, then Fred would translate. They really got into it, their voices low and powerful, and they were very animated, pacing across the stage, one after the other. Sometimes it seemed as if they were actors on a stage, speaking their lines with gusto. Emma talked about “crossing over” in the New Year, and preached from the passage about Jesus crossing over the sea with his disciples when the storm came.

At one point Benji fell asleep, and when he woke up he said, very loudly, “Hey, what did he say? I didn’t hear what he just said!” while Emma was still preaching. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and looked around, trying to remember just exactly where he was. At the end of the message Charles asked us up on the stage, and Clay said a few words about our family. Then Nate was handed the microphone, which he is entirely comfortable holding, and he recited all the countries we’ve been to and where we’re going. Nate is always our man for reciting the list, he has it down pat and gets lots of smiles as he rattles them off.

After church we went back to the hotel, had lunch, played at the pool and generally relaxed all afternoon. It was good to just have free time, the safari was fairly scheduled and the kids missed entertaining themselves, they’ve become so good at it! Once again we made it to bed in time to read and just spend time together without being falling down tired. We talked a little bit about New Year’s resolutions, something we hadn’t thought much about. In some ways we’ve been talking about 2008 for a really long time, planning our trip into May. Alayna said, “It doesn’t seem that weird, since books like the 2008 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records came out a long time ago.” She’s right, and yet a New Year is always a little exciting, and especially this year. Who knows what adventures the New Year may hold…


Monday, 31 December 2007

This morning Fred picked us up to go see the street kids program in action, they were having a New Year’s party at the Dream Center. Before arriving, Fred took us on a little drive of Kigali, driving us to a lookout point where we could see the whole green city spread below us. We passed many children on our way up the hill, carrying huge loads of firewood on their heads. Even little kids, maybe Benji’s age, balanced these unwieldy loads on their heads with apparent ease. Our kids were impressed. We got out at the top of the hill to take a look around, then got back in the car to head to the Dream Center sight. Fred warned us to keep a tight hold on our belongings, some of the kids are on drugs and may try and take something.

As we drove up hundreds of kids were playing on the grassy grounds, kicking soccer balls and wrestling and doing cartwheels. Their ages ranged from three (!) to maybe thirteen or fourteen, all street kids. When they spotted us, they ran along the car, waving and shouting, “Muzungu! Muzungu!” We took a deep breath and opened the doors of the car, to find ourselves mobbed. I stood close behind Benji while he shook hands and high-fived and exchanged wide-eyed stares with all the kids around us. We couldn’t say much to each other, other than “hello” and “bien” when they asked how we were in French.

I could see that Benji was getting a little overwhelmed by the grasping hands and the curious stares and unintelligible questions. Clay and the other two kids were on the other side of the car, so I guided Benji around to them, where Fred took over and led us up a hill to an office they use for their sponsorship program. It was quiet and cool, the street kids returned to their games, and we all took a breath. Fred told us they’d move the kids inside the old building where they meet, and there would be a program, some singing, a short sermon, he’d introduce us, and the kids could ask us questions.

I had imagined our kids running out and kicking the soccer ball with these kids, finding a friend or two, but apparently this would not be possible. Fred explained we were too much of an attraction, and would just be mobbed. This must be what it’s like to be a superstar, I think the kids are going to get a complex. Alayna asked Fred why there were no girls, and sure enough, when I looked down the hill at all the kids running around, there was not a girl in sight. Fred said girls never come, that street girls keep themselves hidden. I can imagine how scary it must be for them, how dangerous. The reality of it all hit me, and I imagined little girls crouched in tiny, dark mud hiding places.

Before the program, four of the street kids did a little tumbling performance outside. We stood amongst all the street kids, clapping and “ooohing” and “ahhhing” each time they did something. It felt good to be among them, and not mobbed by them. To be clapping and laughing at the same things. The tumblers started off with cartwheels and back handsprings, then flips, and then some real acrobatic moves. One of the boys was really flexible, he bent his body into impossible shapes, his feet coming past his back and up to his cheeks, and one time wrapping his entire body around his friend, who let go and spun while the flexible boy held himself on like a belt. There is a sponsored kid named Roger who teaches these boys, up to twenty when they’re all there, how to tumble and flip. It is a great way for them to do something they can be proud of. Something people will applaud. And maybe even a way to earn some money.

We all moved into the old building after the show, where the kids all sat on wooden pews and we sat on some wooden chairs along the side. “This is where the muzungus sit,” Fred told us. The kids clapped and sang, but we were most impressed with the way they could all be so still and quiet, even the smallest of them. If you got together three hundred American kids, you’d have a hard time making them all sit still and quiet and listen to what you were saying without a microphone and some bouncers, but these kids paid attention. They were where they most wanted to be, and they didn’t want to miss a minute of it.

Our time came and we came up to be introduced. The kids asked questions like, “What kind of food do they eat in America?”, “Where is Bin Laden?”, and “Why do you want to travel around the world?” When our kids told the street kids they liked to swim, Fred asked the street kids if they ever swam, and everyone groaned and waved their hands in protest. Apparently swimming is not something they ever do.

I watched the kids, some of them shy and others staring right back. We must seem so foreign to them, an American family traveling around the world, it’s at least as strange and interesting as a lion at the zoo. When we left we took a look in the big stew pot, it smelled delicious. The kids had been given a bowl of porridge around 8 that morning, and were eagerly anticipating their treat of lunch. They would be served a beef stew, potatoes, beans and cabbage to usher them into the New Year. For many, the only hot meal they’ll have until they return next week.

On the way back to the hotel a motorcycle pulled up next to us. In Kigali, these motorcycles are taxis, the driver carries an extra helmet and you just jump on behind him to get where you need to go. I guess I shouldn’t say “we”, the Davises will not be taking this type of taxi while in Kigali. On this particular motorcycle, there was a man sitting behind the driver in addition to five or six live chickens, hanging upside down from the feet, squawking while they puttered down the road. We lamented that most likely, they were going to be someone’s New Year’s dinner.

After a Chinese food lunch with Fred we hung out at the hotel until dinnertime. Charles had invited us to join his family for some pizza for dinner, and we jumped at the chance to let our kids see his kids for a while and hang out. We had no big plans for New Year’s Eve, while Charles was going to be very busy. They were having a church service that would begin at 9pm and continue until 6 the next morning! He said the church would be full, with people even sitting outside. He explained that New Year’s is an even bigger deal than Christmas in Rwanda. They hold a service where they pray and share testimonies and sing and praise God, keeping people off the streets and focused on the one who ushers in each New Year.

Our kids loved seeing Charles’ kids. Nate sat right down by Isaac, his eight-year-old son, and struck up a conversation. Benji sat by Emma, Charles’ ten-year-old nephew, and immediately began talking about video games, even though Emma doesn’t speak much English they had found a common vocabulary. Alayna coddled the three-year-old daughter, Sarah, picking her up and making up little games to play. After filling ourselves with pizza, we headed back to the hotel while Charles headed to his all night service.

We made some calls back home, in a valiant effort to keep ourselves up a little later, but it was no use. We are bedtime wimps, and the kids fell asleep by 9:30. I followed shortly thereafter, and so did Clay, none of us saw midnight. The New Year will come, whether or not we are there to see it arrive. It had already come and gone in Australia, so part of the world was already there.


Tuesday, 1 January 2008

We woke up to the sound of rumbling thunder. It mingled in my dreams and I wondered if they were bombs, my thoughts were drifting to the troubles in Kenya and the worried emails we had received from our parents, asking if we thought flying into Nairobi again was a good idea. We have promised to keep our eyes on the news, and if we do keep our flight, won’t leave the airport during our eight hour layover, we are not looking forward to the long day on Thursday!

Just before 8 this morning, Clay noticed it was almost midnight in the US Central time zone. So we celebrated New Year’s with Austin, Texas doing a countdown, then hanging some Happy New Year’s signs we had made the previous afternoon. Today had been set aside as a day to do homework and relax, so after breakfast, where we encountered some noisy partiers that seemed to be continuing their previous night parties, we headed back to the room for some school. Alayna is busy filling out her seventh grade application to Regents by herself, Nate has finally mastered the multiplication tables and flew through his time test, and Benji and I learned some new shark facts in his reader. Did you know sharks are always swimming, even when they’re asleep? If they don’t, they can’t breathe, and they’ll suffocate.

It was a lazy day, a movie after lunch, washing laundry and finding places to hang it all. By the afternoon, we were pretty certain we should try and change our flight plans. Things we escalating back in Kenya, rioting in the streets of Nairobi, we heard that several hundred people had been killed. Clay saw footage on CNN of crowded streets and men wielding machetes, and there was talk of a “peaceful” march ending in downtown Nairobi on Thursday, the day we’re supposed to pass through. The roads to the airport had been closed, so only international flights were arriving and leaving. While we’d probably be fine, and the airport would certainly not be crowded, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to bring our children into Kenya after seeing all the violence on TV. We sent an email to our travel agent back home asking him if he could find another option.