On my 31st birthday last September, I was writing in my journal when I noticed a crinkled and stained piece of paper had fallen out. I picked it up and realized it was the bucket list I had written during my early years of college. As I read over my list, I noticed two things written down: volunteer abroad and visit a developing country.
Not even a few days later, my manager, Kristen, told me she was heading to Rwanda with another co-worker of ours for a volunteer trip in February with an organization called Venture2Impact. Venture2Impact is an organization that aims to help communities around the world break the cycle of poverty. Not only does this apply to material poverty, but V2I also addresses issues of isolation, vulnerability, powerlessness, physical weakness, and other forms of poverty. As Kristen was telling me about the program in Rwanda, I knew I wanted to partake in it.
The plan was to partner with an organization on the ground in Kigali, Rwanda called Hope and Homes for Children (HHC) to help disadvantaged people in their community learn English, computer skills and train young businesswomen specifically on business and entrepreneurial subjects. The goal was to upskill them so they could qualify for better paying jobs and ultimately reduce child abandonment rates. There has been a preconceived notion in developing countries that placing your children in an orphanage will allow them to flourish and live a better life than if they lived with their families. HHC is debunking this myth and they are striving to close all orphanages and put children into loving homes instead.
We would be in Kigali for a week, but V2I would be on the ground with additional groups of volunteers for a total of three weeks. I knew nothing about Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, or what I was really getting myself into, but I felt in my heart that it was meant to be. If I was going to volunteer abroad, I wanted it to be working and teaching people one on one. Without any hesitation, I found myself setting up a meeting with the founder of Venture2Impact, being interviewed, getting accepted into the program, and planning my trip to Africa in a matter of days.
As months turned to weeks and weeks turned to days before my trip, I found myself getting nervous but energized at the possibilities that awaited me. I’d be traveling alone most of the way, going farther than I ever have without family or my trusty travel partner – my husband, Adam, but I saw it as a challenge to be on my own. I’d be going to a new country (and continent for that matter) that I had no familiarity with and would be totally out of my comfort zone, but I was excited to immerse myself in a culture and way of life that was so different from my own. I couldn’t wait to meet the people we would be working with. What I didn’t anticipate was how much the country, the people and the trip would make an impact on me.
Rwanda’s Tragic Past
Most people who have heard of Rwanda know it for its genocide of 1994, where nearly one million people were brutally tortured and lost their lives in a span of only 100 days. I can’t believe that I was alive during this horrific time of history and had no knowledge of the genocide all these years prior to planning my trip. I wanted to make sure I understood the impact it had on the country and its people before I arrived. To educate myself, I read countless articles online and watched Hotel Rwanda a few months prior to landing on the ground, but nothing could have prepared me for the shock and utter grief I felt walking through the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum on our first full day in Kigali. It opened my eyes to the terror, cruelty, and hatred that enveloped the genocide.
The genocide occurred after decades of social disparity between two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsis. This segregation was instigated by both the Belgians and French at different periods during the 20th century. I’m not going to do the genocide justice explaining how it came about, so I highly recommend you read more of the history here. Below is a picture I took that provides an inside view of how the Hutu took control of the country.
The museum didn’t hold back in visuals and stories, sharing the gory details and harsh realities so many Rwandans faced during that time. I read stories about families who were entirely wiped out, women who were raped by men infected with HIV, children – no matter the age – who were ripped from their families’ arms and brutally murdered. As I made my way through the museum, I became increasingly more and more emotional. As I was taking it all in, I realized my group had walked ahead of me and I was going through most of the rooms alone. I entered a room of photos upon photos of faces of those were killed. Their eyes stared only back at me in that moment and I felt tears welling up in my own eyes.
After seeing and processing all of those beautiful faces, the next set of rooms were full of skulls and bones and the clothes people were wearing the day they died. Much of the clothes you could tell were stained with dried blood. It was then that I completely broke down and cried.
During my time in Rwanda, I gathered that nearly everyone in the country had been impacted by the genocide in one way or another. In one particular English lesson, we asked the HHC beneficiaries we were teaching what their birthdays were. A handful mentioned January 1st and the volunteers and I realized after the fact that it was likely because they didn’t remember their actual birthdays since their parents had died in the genocide.
I also had a chance to have an intimate conversation with the owner of Yambi Guesthouse, the hotel we stayed at, one day after class on its porch.
Patrick shared that his parents were refugees living in Uganda when the genocide happened. Three months later, they came back to Rwanda after being asked to return and help rebuild. When they arrived, he told me that there were still lifeless bodies scattered all over the streets. He also learned that his grandfather, uncle, two aunts and all of his cousins had been murdered. I couldn’t even fathom how that kind of experience would affect a 14-year-old boy. The most tragic part is that so many Rwandans have similar stories like Patrick’s. It really put things into perspective.
The Beauty in Rebuilding Rwanda
Despite their horrific past, the people of Rwanda have miraculously found forgiveness in their hearts to move forward and live in harmony. This movement was led by Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current president, shortly after the genocide as he empowered his country to forgive and find peace. Rwanda’s official view toward ethnicity is that there is no longer a divide of Hutu and Tutsi – they are Rwandan. You’ll hear Rwandans today refer to themselves as “one people” – an incredible feat, considering the tragedy that happened only 25 years ago. As a result, Rwanda is now arguably the safest country in Africa today. There’s something amazingly inspiring and beautiful about how Rwandans have been able to rebuild their country and move past a massacre of such grand scale.
Going into my trip, I had a strong perception of what Rwanda would be like. Growing up in the States, I was haunted by images I’d seen in the media and conditioned to think of African countries as poor and in need of constant aid. On top of that, thinking to what the ramifications of a city pained by genocide would look like, I imagined a very run down, poverty-stricken city. But Rwanda was so different than what I had expected, in the best way possible.
I was elated to see that Kigali in particular was a functioning and modern city, bustling with cars and ‘moto-taxis’ and full of hotels, stores, bars, and restaurants. You could just feel positive energy electrifying the city and I knew on my first drive through the city that I wanted to explore and expose myself to as much as I could.
The first afternoon we were there, a few volunteers and I ventured to the market where meat, fruits and vegetables, and clothing were being sold. What an experience that was! As soon as we began walking through and touching all of the beautiful fabrics, we were welcomed by many of the working women. They brought up pictures of dresses, pants, and skirts on their phones and told us we could pick any fabric and they’d make anything we wanted in a matter of hours. Their tenacity to sell was strong and I knew I wanted a piece of Rwanda to bring home with me, so I happily purchased a pair of elephant-patterned cotton pants (that I love and have been wearing to bed nearly every night since being home).
The volunteers and I also headed out one night after teaching to let loose at an art gallery that transformed to a bar and dance party at night. It was eclectic and full of life. The DJ was spinning a mix of both American and African beats and we quickly found ourselves on the dance floor, practicing our best moves with some of the locals. I couldn’t help grinning ear to ear and absolutely loving every minute.
While there are certainly some more commercialized areas of Kigali, there are also areas where poverty is more prevalent, where we happened to spend most of our time. The majority of the beneficiaries we were teaching came from more financially disadvantaged situations. I learned that many didn’t have running water at home and a few even lived at the local orphanage.
Because of our exposure to Kigali’s poverty, the other volunteers and I talked at length about its effects. While we agreed it was eye-opening and humbling for us to be exposed to it, we admitted we were envious of the beneficiaries. Because despite their financial state, they were rich in so many other ways.
Rwandans didn’t seem to be consumed by the tight grip of technology like so many of us experience in Western countries. Kids happily played and ran around in their front yards, instead of glued to their TVs. Schoolchildren walked to and from school together, holding hands and laughing, instead of their heads buried in their smartphones. It reminded me of the days when I was a kid, before we had computers and cell phones, when life just felt more simple and care-free.
On the 25 minute walk to and from the community hub we taught at, adults and children alike would wave at us and gleefully say ‘hello!’ I couldn’t remember the last time – if any time – a stranger in Chicago waved at me and said hello as I walked by. On one particular walk to the community hub, a 2-year-old girl ran up to us and hugged each of us. Her mother looked on, her face beaming. In America, we’d yell at our child if they ran up to a stranger, for fear of kidnapping (or worse). The trusting nature and strong sense of community among the Rwandans instantly made your heart fill with love and happiness.
The best part of my day was when the beneficiaries came into class with a smile and ready to shake your hand or give you a hug. The Rwandans could not have been more kind or welcoming to us. The feelings I had being surrounded by them each and every day is something I will never forget.
Venturing to Impact in Rwanda
Our time on-site with Venture2Impact during the week I volunteered was three-fold:
To teach the beneficiaries of HHC Rwanda (ages 10-70) computer skills and English – The competitive educational and economic environment in Rwanda increasingly demands computer literacy skills and the English language. Because of this, our goal was to provide foundational skills so they could compete favorably in the job market and work their way around educational activities.
We worked with a wide range of literacy when it came to English, as some spoke fairly fluently, while some could barely speak a few words. Regardless, we found our ways to teach and communicate, whether it was through facial expressions, hand gestures or writing out what we were saying instead (I found many of them could read English). We had so much fun getting to know the beneficiaries on a more personal level through games we played and the English we practiced in class. I personally had never taught English in my life, so I was learning as I went but found it so rewarding when I saw the group I was working with say their sentences in perfect English in front of the class.
Computer class proved more challenging because not only were we teaching computer skills, we were communicating in English, which not everyone spoke or knew. Most had little access to computers (a few mentioned they hadn’t used a computer in years!) and many didn’t have basic computer literacy. We were doing what most of us would consider the simplest of tasks, like how to turn the computer on, how to type, how to navigate to programs like the internet, and how to search for things on Google. One day, I was helping one of the beneficiaries, Joselyne, search for restaurants in Kigali. As I was guiding her, I saw her eyes light up and a smile appear on her face when she saw the page of results pop up. Something that we would consider a norm was magic to her.
During the week, we helped the beneficiaries also create Gmail accounts. On our last day of class, we began passing out our email addresses and I secretly hoped they’d remember how to log-in to their accounts so we could communicate long after I was back in the States. At the time of writing this, it hasn’t been even two weeks since I’ve been home and I’ve already received a handful of emails. Each and every one I’ve received has been more precious than the last.
To empower marginalized women and young mothers (roughly ages 18-30) in the community with business trainings – In the past, many Rwandan women were expected to stay at home and tend to the families. Nowadays, it’s customary for the women to work as well. Our goal was to train women who own their business on subjects such as customer segmentation, customer service and value proposition. We worked with the women two days during the week we were on-site and I learned of their varying businesses, ranging from selling shoes to food to makeup.
I became particularly close to the two women, Sandrine and Natasha, who I worked exclusively with during the week. Both had their own clothing business; Sandrine sold clothes, while Natasha specialized in undergarments and swimsuits. While it was my mission to help them understand the lesson plan and put it into practice in the respective activity each day, I found it was more important for me to listen and empower them through our conversations in English. Looking back, it’s the strong connection we shared that will stay with me when I think of my time in Rwanda. They both spoke extremely good English, so we were able to relate to things on a deeper level. They asked me about my life in America, what my family was like, and if I knew how to drive a car. In turn, I wanted to know how they ran their business and what their life was like in Rwanda.
On my last day with them, I knew I couldn’t realistically hug them good-bye with the hope that maybe I’d see them again. I instinctively gave them my contact information so they could message me and connect with me long after I left. Every day since I’ve been back, receiving a message on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Instagram from Sandrine and Natasha has instantly brightened my day. In this regard, I am so beyond thankful for technology.
To educate HHC Rwanda employees on the importance of social media – While HHC corporate has a strong presence on social, HHC Rwanda previously had none. I was put in charge to create two trainings on social media to present to HHC Rwanda employees and help them create their own social media accounts to raise awareness and gain financial support.
One of the most rewarding days of my trip happened to be the last day when we were working with HHC. We had just finished the second part of my social media training and the Director of HHC Rwanda kindly asked me to go to his office and help him and his colleague set up their Facebook page. My co-worker, John, and I agreed and I taught them the steps to do so. By the time we left, HHC Rwanda was up and running with their page (check it out here!) and the director had invited all of his 4,000+ friends to “Like” it (😂).
I checked in on the page before I boarded the plane home later that night and noticed they already had 55 fans and had made two post updates. They have since gained more fans and are consistently posting almost daily. They also set up their Twitter account the week after we left with the second set of volunteers! This is a huge testament to the fearless leader of HHC Rwanda, Innocent Habimfura.
The Impact Rwanda Left on Me
When you go into a volunteering opportunity like the one I had, all you’re really thinking about is how you’re going to be able to impact those you are helping. You don’t give much thought to what you’ll receive in return. While the V2I volunteers and I certainly had the opportunity to leave a lasting impact, I can say with certainty that we all departed feeling that Rwanda left a lasting impact on us. We’ve still been communicating via WhatsApp on our experience and how grateful we are for the lessons it taught us.
Stand Proud of Who You Are
In one of our English lessons, we taught the beneficiaries ways they could describe themselves. We practiced saying a handful of adjectives out loud and then opened up the room and asked if anyone wanted to come up to the front and say “I am (an adjective)” in English. Immediately, hands shot up and one by one, they walked to the front of the class, standing tall and proudly describing themselves such as “𝘐 𝘢𝘮 𝘴𝘵𝘳𝘰𝘯𝘨,” “𝘐 𝘢𝘮 𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘥,” “𝘐 𝘢𝘮 𝘣𝘦𝘢𝘶𝘵𝘪𝘧𝘶𝘭,” “𝘐 𝘢𝘮 𝘢𝘮𝘢𝘻𝘪𝘯𝘨.” It was so uplifting and empowering to see how the women especially had no qualms or doubts with getting in front of the room and describing themselves this way.
It got me thinking. What if women did this same exercise in the States? What would we say? Who would be brave enough to describe themselves in that way? As women, we typically have a hard time being open and proud of who we are. We can feel awkward and uncomfortable when we talk about ourselves in a positive manner because we don’t want to rub people the wrong way or feel like we are bragging. But the women of Rwanda reminded me that we need to ignore those “icky” feelings and own our power and stand proud of who we are. We should be able to say we are strong, kind, beautiful and amazing with pride and positivity. Because the truth is – we ARE those things and we shouldn’t minimize any of it.
Pursue Your Dreams
We all have a dream. No matter who we are, who our family is, where we live, what our circumstance is – we all have a dream and it’s up to us what we do about it. That very thing is something that can connect us with people, even those who live halfway across the world. “𝘊𝘢𝘯 𝘐 𝘵𝘦𝘭𝘭 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨? 𝘐 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘢 𝘥𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘮.” Natasha said this to me in one of our business trainings. I turned to her and asked her what her dream was. “𝘔𝘺 𝘥𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘮 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘰 𝘮𝘰𝘷𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘈𝘮𝘦𝘳𝘪𝘤𝘢 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘴𝘵𝘢𝘳𝘵 𝘮𝘺 𝘣𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦 𝘣𝘢𝘤𝘬 𝘵𝘰 𝘙𝘸𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘢 𝘴𝘰 𝘐 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘷𝘪𝘥𝘦 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘮𝘺 𝘧𝘢𝘮𝘪𝘭𝘺,” she said in her near-perfect English.
She told me this, only 45 minutes into meeting each other. I admired her vulnerability and ambition. Even though Natasha may not get the opportunity to move to the States, I saw the silver lining in that she can certainly pursue her dream of owning her business in her home country and providing for her family, something that was unheard of in Rwanda for women only two decades ago. And that in of itself is pretty incredible.
That conversation with Natasha opened my eyes to the fact that she and the other beneficiaries refused to be victims of their circumstances. They are working towards their dreams and putting in the effort to improve themselves and learn new skills along the way. They are seizing every opportunity and soaking in each lesson so they can create a better life for themselves. It was a reminder for me to do the same. Life’s too short for excuses.
Make Your Mark with Kindness
I have never felt kindness in the way that I did during my time in Rwanda. There was never a shortage of warm hugs, loving touches, sincere smiles and joyful high fives from the people there. When they smiled at you, you felt it in your heart. When they laughed with you, you felt a connection. When they touched you, you felt their gratitude and compassion.
On our last day in English class, we discussed the topic of holidays since it just so happened to be Valentine’s Day. One of the activities during class was to write notes to our valentines – the people in our respective groups that day. I watched in delight how seriously the beneficiaries took the task and shared out their thoughts on the notecards they had written. It was the smallest act of kindness, but one that went a long way and filled the room with love.
Even though Joselyne, my student and friend in computer class, wasn’t in my group during English, I had taken a notecard to write her a valentine and handed it to her when I arrived to our computer lesson. I helped read what I wrote to her and she instantly flashed me a smile and gave me a big hug. After class when we were saying our final good-byes, she grabbed the interpreter, Ali, and walked over to me with him in tow. She said something to Ali in Kinyarwanda and he looked over at me and smiled. “She says she loves you very much and she will miss you dearly. And she will pray for you and hopes you will come back to Rwanda.” I could have cried right there.
Joselyne, like many of the other Rwandans I met, taught me the power of kindness and reminded me to spread it every chance I get. A smile to a stranger, a hello to a passerby, a compliment to a friend, a thoughtful note to our partner – the momentum of one small gesture can make a difference and lead to a ripple effect of warmth and compassion, something our world so desperately needs.
I write and speak a lot about ᴍᴀᴋᴇ ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴍᴀʀᴋ when it comes to L&I. ᴍᴀᴋᴇ ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴍᴀʀᴋ is a simple phrase, but one that’s jam-packed with meaning and purpose. It means that we have a chance to create an impact. To stand out. To be women of influence – whether that’s in our family, our friend group, our community, or halfway around the world. We never know how big of an impact we can be on someone’s life. Just by taking the time to get to know someone, or extending a hand to help, or showing kindness in some way – the littlest actions that we can take can make a difference on someone’s life. We have the power to change the world in a positive way and touch the lives we come into contact with – we just need to go out and spread kindness every chance we get.
We Are One People
I mentioned earlier how Rwandans today refer to themselves as “one people.” That saying will stick with me forever because it carries even more meaning to me now. Through my experience in volunteering, I was reminded that we are one people of the world. No matter our language, our religion, our skin color, our upbringing or our way of life – we all belong to one human race. Despite our differences, we share the most critical commonalities. We are all striving to provide. We are all aiming to create our best lives possible. We are all craving love and connection. And at the end of the day, it’s that what unites us. We are one world and one people.
My Immense Gratitude
Thank you to my loved ones and donors who supported this cause. Thank you to HHC for providing a safe space for us to educate and be a beacon of light for its beneficiaries. Thank you to V2I for creating this beautiful opportunity and allowing me to be a part of it. And thank you for taking the time to read about my trip and the impact it had on me. The level of gratitude I have for this experience and the people I met through it is beyond measure.
It may have been my first time to Rwanda, but I left knowing that it would not be my last.