Beyond the gorilla experience
Our time in Rwanda is coming to an end. It has been an incredible two months, here, mainly thanks to…
A forward-thinking country
This year marks 25 years since the Rwandan genocide, one of the darkest episodes of recent history. In 1994, some 800,000 Rwandans, mostly those who were ethnically Tutsi, were slaughtered in 100 days. While this may not be the type of zen memory you’d usually meditate on during a yoga session, it felt like an auspicious time to work towards bringing more peace, love, and compassion to this country (more on this further down!).
Despite all of the suffering Rwandans have endured, it is not what defines them. In fact, I rarely heard the word genocide spoken out loud and I only saw it written in the newspaper occasionally. Rwanda defines itself as it envisions itself in the future: a peaceful and prosperous country. No doubt there is still backbreaking poverty in rural areas but there is a universal sense of forward momentum and excitement about the country’s future that seems to transcend social classes.
Speaking of, the nation’s approach to environmental cleanup is next level! Here in Rwanda, it is illegal to import, produce, use, or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging (except within specific industries like hospitals and pharmaceuticals). Authorities say that plastic bags are as bad as narcotics! They contribute to flooding and prevent crops from growing because rainwater can’t penetrate the soil when it is littered with plastic. Traffickers caught carrying illegal plastic are liable to be fined or jailed. The ban was first adopted in 2008 and the nation’s zero tolerance policy toward plastic bags appears to be paying off: streets in the capital, Kigali, and elsewhere across the country are virtually spotless. Rwanda is probably Africa’s cleanest nation. Though at least 15 African countries have enacted some sort of ban, many still have plastic bags littered on roads, stuck in drain pipes or caught in trees. Cattle die eating the bags because they obstruct digestion. In informal settlements in places like Kenya, plastic bags are sometimes used as “flying toilets” containing human waste.
(Source: The NewTimes)
In addition, in Rwanda, men and women are regularly seen on the sides of roads sweeping up rubbish, and citizens are required once a month to partake in a giant neighborhood cleaning effort - known as Umuganda. The purpose of this community work is to contribute to the overall national development. Today, it takes place on the last Saturday of each month from 8a.m. and lasts for at least three hours.
The wonders of a thousand hills
From Kigali to Gisenyi, we carved out some time to explore the rich and diverse country of Rwanda - the land of a thousand hills. Our favorites?
Perfect weather that is like a mild spring or summer day 90% of the time
15-cent ($) avocadoes twice as large as my fist
Sampling passion fruit at the Kimironko Market
Driving across Rwanda’s beautifully lush and rolling countryside
Sambaza (little fish the size of a pinkie, caught from Lake Kivu) from Repub Lounge
Learning how to weave agaseke (Rwandan peace baskets) with local artisans from the Northern Province.
One man’s trash being another man’s treasure
For people who live along the rural back roads, seeing muzungus (“white person”) is a fairly unusual event. Rwandan of all ages wave and children run after us, as well as ask for money, food, or other things. Throughout our trip around the countryside, one consistent request that surprised me was for “chupa” ; empty water bottles. Empty water bottles are in such high demand by children in rural areas for a few reasons. First, they can fill them with water to take to school. They can also sell them to a local store for ~20 rwandan francs (~2 cents of euros), so that the store owner can fill them with cooking oil or juice and resell them. Granted, the plastic bottles may ultimately end up polluting the environment at a later date once they are discarded for good. But in the intermediate phase, they help children eke out a tiny livelihood or hydrate themselves while at school. That being said, earlier this year, the Ministry of the Environment announced that they will no longer be manufacturing, importing, using and selling disposable plastics, including the traditional single-use water bottles!
Not so aimless wanderers
I’ve grown accustomed to hearing “muzungu” when I’m out in public. Muzungu (pronounced “Mmm-zoo-ngooo”) is the southern, central, and eastern African term for “white person”. The etymology of the word stems from a contraction of words meaning “one who wanders aimlessly” and was coined to describe European explorers, missionaries, and slave traders who traveled through East African countries in the 18th century.
In Rwanda, our skin color may label us as muzungus, but we came with a clear purpose!
We supported AZHAR foundation - an international nonprofit organization promoting individual and community well-being and (inner)peacebuilding through yoga, the arts, and culturally appropriate education in health, life skills, and social development.
AZAHAR foundation initiated its activities in Rwanda around 2014. Since then, they have developed several yoga programs geared towards orphans & vulnerable youth, survivors of the genocide, & under-resourced women artisans from rural areas. These programs have proved very successful in addressing the mental and psychosocial imprints of the genocide as well as empowering the beneficiaries to take care of themselves and their community. That being said, the activity went on a yearlong hiatus because of lack of human resources.
During our two months on the ground, we built a new team of Rwandan yoga teachers to facilitate all existing AZAHAR yoga programs. This was not an easy task as yoga is still new in the country and slowly conquering Rwandan hearts. Although there are about 15 certified Rwandan teachers across the country today, half of them are new practitioners who completed their teacher training in the last year or so. With that in mind, we offered weekly thematic education workshops to equip the new team with the tools to adapt the yoga practices to the beneficiaries of AZAHAR programs.
In addition, we hired a local project manager to ensure the successful execution of the programs.
Also, we worked towards building a new partnership between AZAHAR and Solid’Africa to see yoga and meditation integrated as stress management & healing tools into mainstream medicine and healthcare.
Last but not least, we facilitated a successful fundraising class to benefit AZAHAR Rwanda project. Thank you WAKA Fitness for hosting us and gratitude towards all the students who gathered for this special evening.
From NY to Ny…
From NY to Nyamirambo (one of the most vibrant districts of Kigali), we have completed a lap around the sun! This 12-month voyage has been enjoyable yet quite challenging.
We slowed down the pace of our lives, taking the scenic route and enjoying the ride. We discovered each city with the amazed eyes of a child. Our heart skipped a breath each time we were landing in a new country, bursting with excitement about the newness that was awaiting for us - new culture, new house, new relationships, new local coffee shop, new etc...
But moving from one destination to another also meant leaving newly built roots behind and starting all over again. Added to months away from everything that is familiar and comfortable, we were sometimes feeling homesick. Being far away from home, encountering innumerable stories of suffering, and witnessing that suffering became sometimes overwhelming.
Today, we feel the need to take a break, restore, and reconnect with our loved ones in Europe.
See you in October!