Wednesday, March 26, 2014

My Parents Visit Rwanda!

I realize that as of late my blog makes it seem like I do nothing but go on awesome African vacations. I guess that’s what happens when you use almost all of your 48 vacation days in the period of three and a half months.
            Two months ago (has it been that long already?!?), my parents came to visit Rwanda. I have been blessed with two active and adventurous parents, and I’d been eagerly awaiting their first trip to Africa for a long time. Due to inclement weather (Chicago blizzards, I’m looking at you), their original plane ticket was canceled, and they were left scrambling to book other flights.
            But finally, they arrived, about 18 hours after they had planned to be in Rwanda. I met them at the airport in Kigali, and one of the first things my Dad asked me was for a Creighton basketball update. Some things never change. Creighton, give this man an award already.
            We dropped our bags off at the hotel, then walked down Kigali’s grand boulevards to Kigali’s best pizza place, Sol e Luna. Pizza is only available in the larger cities in Rwanda, is usually too expensive for a Peace Corps budget, plus the quality varies so much that I almost never order it (think lots of dry flatbread with plain tomato paste listed as “pizza”). We split some wine and had our fill of pizza while my parents marveled about Kigali’s wonderful climate (between 60-70 F almost all the time), clean, swept streets, and twinkling lights amidst the rolling hills.

            The next morning we were all up early to catch the bus to my site, in the southwest. We finally arrived at the convent seven hours later.

The nuns were overjoyed to see my parents, and hugs, handshakes, and greeting were exchanged in mixed English, French, and Kinyarwanda.

My parents had brought me a restock on some essential items (read: twenty jars of peanut butter), and we spent some time unpacking it all. Then my parents got to meet D’Assisi, who had just come home from school. He used to be afraid of talking with them on skype, and I was interested to see how he would find them. It was love at first sight.

 D’Assisi started calling them “Mama” and “Papa”, and practicing his English with them. We took a walk around the school and church, shared dinner with the nuns, and called it an early night.


            The next day, we went to mass at the church and had breakfast with the nuns before heading to Rusayo Orphanage, where my brother Paul volunteered this summer.

It’s about 40 minutes from my site, and it’s a beautiful walk.

            We spent the morning at the orphanage, with children following my parents around and vying for the opportunity to hold their hands.

The sisters recounted the story of the orphanage’s founding, the genocide, and their struggles to provide for all of the children, which I translated into English for my parents.

The founder, Mama Adria, has an especially moving story. She lost her husband and her three children in just a few short years, and received visions telling her to take care of all Rwanda’s children. The sisters cooked a special meal for my parents, and then we headed back to my site.

            My neighbor, Papa Pachisi, owns the furniture workshop in our village. He invited us over for some banana beer (which my Mom refused, and my Dad liked) and a tour of his furniture workshop.

Dad and I enjoying some banana beer
There was a black and white picture of some French priests who helped start the workshop back in the 60s, and Papa Pachisi told my Dad he looked exactly like one of the priests, a sentiment that would be communicated by several people in my village over the next couple of days. For the record, they look nothing alike, other than being white men over the age of 40.

            Even though my parents could have used a nap and it was pouring rain, I dragged them to my Health and Leadership Club. We brought some American candy with to distribute, and my students practiced their English by asking my parents a few questions.

We’re in the middle of making a new radio show episode on fighting malaria, and they wanted to present the sketch for my parents. They acted out the various scenes with passion, and my parents were pretty impressed.

            Then came my favorite part of my parents’ time at my Peace Corps site. All of my community English students and my coworkers at the health center met at our local bar for a welcoming party for my parents. Everyone tried to cram into one room, and more people spilled out into the main room.

My women’s English class dressed in traditional celebratory clothing, the umushyanana (basically a fancy toga). My students introduced themselves, and several of my friends made speeches (the Rwandan national pastime :), and my English students presented me with an over-the-top basket of fruit decorated with gaudy pink fabric.

The conversation turned to America and my parent’s thoughts about Rwanda. It turned into kind of a question-and-answer on American and Rwandan culture. One of the best parts of the night was when my parents asked everyone to guess their ages. My coworkers and students’ guesses ranged from 16 to 90. Everyone was so happy to meet my parents, and we finally left the bar a few hours later, late for dinner with the nuns. It was one of the highlights of the trip, for sure.

            We spent the rest of the night enjoying dinner with the nuns and playing a few games with D’Assisi.

            On Wednesday, my parents and I went to mass, then to have a tour of my Health Center. My coworkers gave my parents gifts (my Mom received some igitenge, or fabric, and my Dad received a wall decoration), and they got to see where I’ve worked these past two years. It was especially interesting (shocking?) for my Mom since she’s a doctor.

            That morning, I taught one of my adult students, Jean, how to bake banana bread. Although he’s one of the few Rwandans in my village to be college-educated, he has been unemployed for several months and has three children. We’ve been brainstorming business ideas, and he’s going to try to give selling banana bread a shot.

            Our Peace Corps Medical Officer, Dr. Laurent, dropped by for a routine site visit, and the five us had some breakfast together and the convent. After the banana bread was baked and Dr. Laurent headed to another volunteer’s site, my parents and I headed to the village market.

They got to meet my favorite market mamas, and we bought the necessary ingredients for the dinner party we’d planned that night.

            After the market, we headed to the hotsprings with one of the priests from my parish, Padiri Janvier. We picked up my friend and fellow PCV Joey, who lives nearby the hotsprings, on the way.

I brought a bright pink blow-up raft to paddle around the thermal lake in, and did as the Rwandans do by bringing soap and shampoo with me to take a bath. I also told my parents that there were only crocodiles in the shallow part, and to avoid that area. I think they believed me for a few seconds.

 After we’d had enough of swimming in the hot water, we headed back to Mushaka to visit my friend and the leader of the fairtrade coffee cooperative in my village, Pastor Japhet. All of my friends in my village wanted to meet my parents; it was tough squeezing in time to visit everyone.

            With only a couple of hours until dinner, my parents and I set about furiously chopping and cooking. We had planned an “American meal” of chili, pasta with marinara, sautéed kale (from seeds my parents had sent a few months prior), guacamole, and chapatti for dipping. I had invited my sitemate Leah, the priests and brothers, a civil official and friend, Philippe.

We were definitely short on time, and I think my parents are still forgiving me for how rushed we all were. But we managed to pull it off, and everyone enjoyed the food (and the bottle of port my sister Beth brought me as a Christmas gift!).

            After morning mass on Thursday, we had breakfast at the priests’ residence. We then headed down the mountainside to visit my favorite family in my village, Annonciata and Robert. Their oldest daughter, Eriane, recently learned that she had passed the national exam, and was eligible to go to one of the best schools in the region, an all-girls school called St. Francois Shangi. I was incredibly overjoyed. I have been tutoring Eriane the past year and a half, and she was one of just 6 students out of 150 that passed the exam from our poor village school.
            My parents generously offered to help her pay the school fees to attend St. Francois, and Eriane started jumping around the room. This opportunity means that she’s that much closer to her dream of becoming a nurse, which would enable her to help support her four other siblings and have a chance of living somewhere besides a two-room mud house. Annonciata and Robert insisted on cooking a meal of rice, small fish, and boiled green bananas for us, even though we were headed to lunch at Pastor Japhet’s immediately afterward. After the meal, Eriane and I hugged goodbye, and we all wished her good luck at school. She's doing well, and I am so, so happy for her.

            We headed over to Pastor Japhet’s house, where we had lunch with him, his wife Jacqueline, and my student-soon-to-be-banana-bread-baker Jean. We all talked about working in the coffee business and the coffee cooperative Japhet manages. Japhet gave my parents a gift of Rwandan honey before we left to say goodbye to the nuns and catch a ride to Kamembe. We made one final stop at the tailor’s to pick up the skirt my Mom had made from the fabric the nuns gave her before heading to Kamembe, my regional city, about 45 minutes away.

            My parents and I dropped our bags off my Home St. Francois, a small guesthouse run by the same order of nuns I live with right on the Congo/Rwanda border. We met up with Sr. Adelinde, one of my favorite nuns who has moved to another convent. She had been having some health problems, and my Mom was able to examine her.

            That evening, my parents and I headed over to a new, fancy resort on the shores of Lake Kivu that I’d only heard about, called the Emmeraude Kivu.

We shared a few glasses of wine while admiring the magnificent views overlooking Lake Kivu.

The sun began to set over the Congo mountains, and singing fishermen in wooden boats began to cross the lake.

We eventually returned back to Home St. Francois when the fishermen’s lanterns were glowing in the darkness across Lake Kivu.


            On Friday morning, we took motorcycles up the hills overlooking Lake Kivu to visit Sr. Agnes, my friend and former counterpart, who moved to her new convent just a few weeks earlier. We shared coffee and spoke with the three nuns in the convent.

         Eventually, Sr. Agnes asked my mother if anything could be done for her leg. A few years after the genocide, Sr. Agnes’ bus was attacked by a militia, and she was brutally beaten and left for dead; she was later flown to Belgium for emergency surgery. She showed us her x-rays, and it was utterly heartbreaking to see them. Her bones were broken into smithereens, and filled with bits of metal. My Mom said she was lucky to have her legs.

            After visiting Sr. Agnes, we were picked up by the effervescent Padiri Ubald, a cheerful and loudspoken priest who founded a healing and reconciliation program at our parish after the genocide that has made international news. He was on his way to Kigali anyway, and offered to take us along. Fr. Ubald speaks internationally at universities and parishes, and he definitely kept the car ride interesting.

            When we got to Kigali, we had planned to go to the genocide memorial, but we found that it closed at 4, not at 5, and we were too late. So I took my parents to see Kimironko market. Kimironko is huge, and has everything from homegoods to souvenirs to clothing to fruits and vegetables. We met one of my former students, Jean, who got a scholarship and is now studying at a university in Kigali. We bought a few souvenirs, and then met up at an Indian restaurant with a couple friends.

           We woke up early on Saturday to head to the genocide memorial. It was probably my fourth or fifth time visiting the museum and burial site, but it is never any less affecting.

After spending a few hours there, we drove out to Akagera national park, in the East of Rwanda. We drove through the safari park and spotted lots of animals, although elephants remained elusive.

We took an evening boat tour on one of Akagera's many lakes with a boat captain who was a descended from some of the first Belgian colonizers in Rwanda.

He had lots of interesting stories of growing up in Rwanda, and was really knowledgeable about all of the birds and animals in Akagera. 

          That night, we stayed at a new eco-lodge in Akagera called the Ruzizi Tented Lodge.

 It was absolutely incredible. It's completely solar-powered, and located right on the water's edge.

 We had a bonfire and a great meal with all of the other guests, including a couple who did Peace Corps in the 1960s in Colombia! We had a lot to talk about, and it was fun comparing Peace Corps then (in the age before liability :) and now.

         After dinner, we spent some time by the bonfire and stargazed. 

It was the clearest I'd ever seen the night sky. 

You could see billions of stars, and I could only pull myself away from looking at the stars when a bunch of hippopotamuses (hippopotami?) came right up to the wooden boardwalks of the lodge to graze. We were about 10 feet away from the most dangerous animal in Africa!


       On Sunday morning we woke early again to watch the sun rise over the lake. 

 It was wonderful beginning to the day, sipping some coffee and feeling like I was the first person on earth to see the sunrise. 

Soon we were on the road, seeing more animals and listening to my Dad's oldies mixes in the car. 

We realized time really did fly when you're having fun and had to make a beeline to the exit, driving a much faster than my mother would like :)

We made it to the airport with only a little time to spare, which we spent negotiating with the airlines over my Mom' s plane ticket. Eventually, all of us made it safe and sound to part II of our African adventure...Zanzibar!

To be continued...