Monthly Archives: November 2013



I recently returned from a three-week trip to Rwanda with my daughter, Gretchen, and my granddaughter, Avery.  Gretchen is the founder and president of a non-profit that helps women and girls by teaching them how to start social entrepreneurships to solve problems in their communities (  My primary purpose while there was to babysit Avery while Gretchen taught her class to a group of new students.

When we landed at the Kigali airport it was dark, in the mid 60’s with no humidity. The airport was small – only 2 baggage carousels – with the only difference from small airports in the US  being the passport check, the high fence around it covered with razor wire and the guards carrying kalashnikovs!  The city of Kigali was more developed than I had expected. The ride to our “guest house” reveled hilly terrain sparkling with house/street lights, moderate traffic, paved 4-lane roads lined with shops (most with hand-painted signs above them) and lots and lots of people walking around despite the absence of sidewalks. The hotel was called “Heaven” and was in a gated compound.  (We loved telling taxi drivers, “Take us to heaven!”) They had an open-air bar and restaurant, but only 3 rooms. Ours had ceramic tile floors, 2 beds – one king and one single – with mosquito netting, a small refrigerator, a large wardrobe, a standing fan, small desk & night stands/lamps. The walls were plaster & the ceiling bamboo. It was very spacious and had a private bathroom. We ate dinner on the deck at the hotel restaurant the first night overlooking the lighted hills in the distance. We shared a roasted vegetable salad and then had mushroom orecchiette which was fabulous!
I didn’t research this area before we left as I might normally do before traveling, and my role as Nanny and lack of transportation limited my ability to really explore. We were on foot/stroller while Gretchen was teaching class. If we were to take a taxi anywhere we had to bring the car seat & then lug it around with us when we reached our destination. So, Gretchen selected a safe neighborhood (expats, ambassadors, presidential palace) within 20-30 minutes of a downtown area that offered shops & people watching OR we could walk to the Hotel des Mille Collines (thousand hills) which was very luxurious in a guarded complex (kalishnakovs every where) with pool, bar and outdoor courtyard and an expansive team of service providers. This was the hotel on which the movie “Hotel Rwanda” was based.
Gretchen arranged our travel itinerary so we could recuperate from the 20+ hour trip and adjust to the time change on the weekend before her class began.  After breakfast on the first morning we were there, we walked downhill for about 45 minutes to the craft market – a triangular cluster of about 30-40 little shops painted bright blue and green. I think it was a co-op of sorts as there seemed to be a “manager” who wanted to direct you to various people’s shops. Merchandise included brightly-colored bags, aprons, woven baskets, beaded jewelry, carved masks, statuary (lots of animals), bowls, etc. It took us a little over an hour to get back, so we got some good exercise too.
On the first morning of Gretchen’s class, her driver came to pick her up at 8:45. Avery had slept through the night, only stirring a couple of times. We went to breakfast early (during the week we only have a choice of eggs, scrambled or fried, white toast,  (no meat), diced fruit, a drinkable yogurt and coffee or tea. Alas no crepes or eggs Benedict! We spent our day at the pool at the other hotel and had a great time in the chilly water.
The next day we were able to accompany Gretchen to her class. The classroom in the long, low tan brick building was not illuminated by electricity. Cement floors and parquet-patterned reed ceiling formed the backdrop for the class. Daylight filtered through the barred windows casting dim shadows off the blue plastic chairs which had been arranged in a large circle. Thirty- eight chairs were occupied – most by participants in the social entrepreneur class, others by Gretchen, her Rwandan employee and interpreter on this day, a Dartmouth graduate who oversees the Liberian eAcademy that Gretchen started, the man who runs her program in Uganda, and three graduates from a recent retreat Gretchen had held.
Gretchen started with breathing and exercises to evaluate each person’s mood and to focus on being fully present for the next few hours. She explained that there would be a break for tea (and bananas as it turned out, which attracted the little grayish-brown monkeys with the black faces), and the afternoon would be spent with a demonstration on how to list issues that need to be addressed in a community and to show how they are linked together.
I left the classroom then to take Avery for a walk. We left the compound and headed down the road for the shops along the main boulevard. (I noticed only the main roads are paved – the others are dirt) we walked for about an hour. Bought a bib (she’s been making a mess of her favorite Italia shirt & then gets upset when we try to wash it) and we returned for the afternoon session for about half an hour before lunch – a typical high-carbohydrate African meal of rice, potatoes, peas and chicken (very spicy).
My thought about the morning? I was surprised to see that about 7 of the people in the class were men and that everyone was eager to participate and raised their hands to comment. Some of the students had come from as far away as the Congo.
Gretchen is amazing as an instructor! She manages to explain complicated ideas (social entrepreneurship) to people with limited education through an interpreter with patience, respectfulness, and enthusiasm. All her helpers think she is incredible! As I understand it, once they identified the social issues that needed to be addressed,  they discussed “what assets do you have to work with.”
That afternoon after class, we headed for the Rwandan Genocide Memorial.  The exhibits in the museum started with “What was Rwanda like before?” It gave a very thorough description of the effects of colonialization on the country and how the Rwandans were forced to get identity cards in 1932 (anyone with more than 10 cows would be a Hutu and anyone with fewer cows would be a Tutsi.) Step by step, the exhibits documented the government & Hutus elimination of the Tutsis. So hard to understand genocide in this day and age. It was really overwhelming.  (The book “The Devil Came on Horseback”  about our son Brian’s experiences in Sudan which was co-authored by Gretchen was sold in their gift shop!)
We changed hotels after four days to be closer to where Gretchen’s classes were being held. Avery and I mostly spent our days taking walks or going to the pool, although we were included on field trips with the class.  One afternoon, we drove 1 1/2 hours out of town to a little village called Biymana to see two of Gretchen’s projects working. (Did you know that Global Grassroots funds approximately 50 projects that touch the lives of over 50,000 people?)
The drive out of the city was great – lush hilly terrain terraced with banana groves, coffee trees, rice paddies & raised vegetable beds accented by cement houses, most with clay tile roofs. I saw a goat or two tied up to a post near a garden plot and 4 cows once, but other than that there were no animals. All the crops are planted and harvested by hand – they have no plows of any sort, no horses or oxen, no tractors! We passed hundreds of people walking along the side of the road carrying baskets of produce or bundled goods on their heads, mothers with babies wrapped in brightly-colored fabric on their backs, mini-buses and motorbikes.
The first project was one that taught single mothers how to sew so they could support themselves. The group had four treadle sewing machines in a small cement building in the center of the village. The second project was a building project at a primary school for a girl’s washroom. At the school, over 1,000 students were waiting for our arrival! The response from the groups whose projects she funded was incredible. Gretchen was so low-key and gracious. I was so proud of her and the opportunity to see her work in action.
Avery is a real little ambassador! She offers her doll to people as a token of good will and then waits for them to give it back. She’s always so delighted when they accept it! And she loves all the children so much.
Saturday was the day the students in Gretchen’s class presented their proposed ideas for funding. The money that Gretchen awards them is supplied as a grant and is not micro-financing with requirements that it be paid back.  Instead, she helps them figure out how their projects that be sustainable.
One person from each group presented their proposal based on a structure Gretchen had given them. They started by drawing a diagram of the roots of a tree with problems stated on each “root” line.  All of the projects presented were water projects, but the problems covered a broad spectrum of issues that affected women and girls with scarcity of water or poor water quality at the base. Some of them included infidelity (if we had more water, the women could wash and their men would want to be with them instead of finding someone else), sexual abuse (women raped on the way to collect water or they trade men sex for collecting water for them),  and domestic violence  (men are angry when it takes their wife so long to collect the water in the morning). When they listed their assets, they included things like volunteers, a hammer, a chair, knowledge and wisdom. It really broke my heart to see how little they had to work with and reminded me of how much we take for granted on a daily basis.
After the presentations, we headed for Akagera National Park for the rest of the weekend to go on a safari. The first part of the drive outside the Kigali city limits was again lush countryside but with far more banana plantations than we had seen before (we learned that potatoes were planted around all the banana frees to use the space wisely) and many fish farms – all tilapia with raised huts in them that housed rabbits. The rabbit droppings fed the fish and vegetation was grown hydroponically to feed the rabbits. We had noticed that most of the restaurants had tilapia on the menu, but didn’t realize it was local.
As we continued our drive, we turned off the main road onto a pockmarked dirt road studded with big rocks that was difficult to navigate. We noticed that the terrain began to change. The soil became redder and the houses (about 10×15 with one door and a small window on each side) were no longer made of cement but rather of “bricks” made of red clay and straw with corrugated metal roofing. There were fewer trees and the land flattened out. We still saw lots of people walking, carrying plastic yellow “gas cans” for water collection at central pumps in the villages, HUGE bundles of sticks in 4-foot lengths balanced on heads, women “sweeping” the dry red dirt outside their houses, laundry spread out to dry on bushes, children rolling bicycle tires with sticks (no toys or balls here), a few goats and small wood fires outside some of the houses.
After about a 2-hr drive, we arrived at the locked gate to Akagera National Park. It closed for the night at 6PM and there were security guards posted to protect the animals. They admitted us and we stopped at the Visitor’s Center to pay the entrance fees. The next morning accompanied by one of the Park Rangers we headed down a deeply rutted road into the game park. The park is at an altitude of 1,400 ft. and had two different habitats – marshland along the lake and vast grassland on a flat plain and the hills overlooking it. There is mostly scrub brush, acacia trees, eucalyptus, grasses and we saw papyrus growing. Remember they used that to make paper in ancient times? The ranger said it is used today for roofing and also for woven mats. It looks like giant dandelion puffballs in green and brown – about 8-10 ft tall and a foot across!
The first game animal we sighted was a water buck (like a mule deer). The park ranger explained that when they are killed, they release a hormone which poisons their meat. We saw impalas (small bronze colored deer), roan antelope (the largest antelope & very rare, it’s the size of an elk), oribi (another small deer), topi (an antelope that can run 70 kph), duiker (small deer that hops like a kangaroo), water buffalo, warthogs, and giraffes. Giraffes feed on acacia trees, which have thorns.  The giraffe’s tongue is extra tough so they aren’t bothered by them. We saw giraffes at many locations in the park. The elephants were feeding too. Unfortunately we didn’t hear any of them “trumpet.”  Zebras each have a slightly different pattern of stripes – like fingerprints. We saw hippos, although we only saw their eyes & ears as they were all submerged. There were two extremely large crocodiles sunning themselves near the hippo pond, but we weren’t allowed out of the car to get a close shot. HUGE termite mounds were everywhere and dotted the landscape like gopher holes.
There are 535 species of birds in the park and we saw: Grouse (which the ranger said tasted like chicken), guinea hens, kingfishers, white broad coucal (large like a hawk), grand parrot, woodpeckers, egrets, herons, eagles, go away bird (because it’s cry sounds like “go away, go away”), buzzard, bustard, red turacol (which was black until it spread it’s wing sto fly and they were a brilliant red), a beautiful iridescent turquoise starling and 4-5 more whose names I failed to record. It was a great day of animal sightings and we arrived back at the lodge at 3 PM in time for a quick swim & late lunch before the drive back to Kigali.
Avery and I spent the next day hanging around the hotel (playground, building with brix, stories, plants, searching for lizards, etc) and then went for a walk with Gretchen after she returned from her class. We walked about 30 minutes to the Kimoronko Market – largest market in Kigali. On the way we passed a young boy with a bucket of hard boiled eggs & a salt shaker. I don’t know how much he was charging for each egg but it looked like a great business venture. The market was amazing – HUGE with fruits & vegetables, meats, fish (merchants who sold meat wore red coats like doctors & those who sold fish wore white), hardware items, housewares, shoes, clothing (much used), and so much more. Everything was packed floor to ceiling in a huge metal-roofed cement building twice the size of Wal-Mart – unlit except for scattered skylights. We bought bananas, mangoes, carrots, and yellow sunglasses for Avery. One young man followed us around with a fragrant bag of basil be wanted us to buy. Another was hawking her freshly shelled leas. and the woman next to her was peeling cloves of garlic. Seamstresses had their treadle machines set up in the aisles, A cobbler was mending shoes and using a hand-turned sewing.
Everything was so cheap there. They have one hundred franc coins and then five hundred, one thousand, two thousand, and five thousand franc bills. There may be larger ones, but the average person would never use them nor be able to make change for larger bills. I think in their economy, they equate to $1, $5, $10, $20 and $50 bills, although they are worth so much less. An appropriate tip for a porter or taxi driver is 5 francs (70 cents) and, as waiters here get only 10% tips with food so inexpensive – we had homemade spinach ravioli the other night and it was only 3000 francs or $4.25 – a tip for an entire meal might only be 1,000 francs or $1.40! It’s easier to understand then why the average person in a village might subsist on only $300/year. (And also why they can’t afford $1,500 water tanks.)
We taught Avery some Rwandan words – hello, animal names and some body parts. She was really picking it up fast. The language native to Rwanda is kinyarwandan (keen-rwandan) although most of the population also speaks French which was first introduced by Catholic missionaries long ago. English has only been taught in the schools for about 4 years. When I hear Rwandans talking, it sounds so much like Tagalog or Japanese (how can countries so far apart speak somewhat the same?) and the words when written look like Tagalog. Here are some common words/phrases:
Good Morning – Mwaramutse
Hello – Muraho
Thank you – Murakoze
How are you? Amakuru
Fine – Ni meza
Good job – Akazikeza
Listen – Umva
Good bye – Murabeho
Toilet (a very important word) – ubwiherero
Water – Amaze
Foreigner (or white person) – Muzungu
Grandmother – Nyirakuru
Grandchild – Umwuzukuru
Wine (also important) – Divaya
And, yes, these are all spelled correctly although I battled that little spell checker guy over some of them as I was typing this story.
At the end of the two-week class, Avery and I joined Gretchen’s class for a field trip to see two water projects. The first was Seraphine’s – the woman with only a 2nd class education whose team installed a water tower. Global Grassroots funded the installation of these water towers outside a church.The well they used to go to (still being used by people who live close to it) was a 3+ mile walk down rutted roads. Seraphine said they will never stop thanking Global Grassroots for helping a bunch of women with nothing make their dream a reality.
Inline image 4
Then we visited another site within the Kigali city limits where Global Grassroots had funded the building of a water hut and a water tank on a spot where there was once just a pile of dirt. They use the money they make to buy health insurance, purchase sanitary supplies (soap, etc.) and to buy school supplies for children.
One of the participants in Gretchen’s class commented on how they were taking these classes to learn how to solve social issues and start their own sustainable non-profit. But, he said it made such a difference seeing that Gretchen’s model worked and that there were successful projects that had used it. He said they were able to meet face-to-face with people who had started with nothing and had worked hard and had achieved success.
Speaking of which, Gretchen explained to me that the first year she started these projects she just gave grant money but didn’t think to do any follow up. Now they have a project manager who does keep on top of all the projects to make sure everyone is doing okay. In addition she has an advisory council made up of the leaders of the 5 most successful ventures. Global Grassroots bases its success on how well they do what their participants want – not what Global Grassroots wants. They ask their participants how Global Grassroots can do its job better. Gretchen calls this participatory development. In other words, the people decide what they need and Global Grassroots empowers them to get it done – rather than Global Grassroots deciding what they need and either doing it for them or telling them what to do. It was really amazing watching Gretchen’s projects in operation. Everyone is so, so thankful and Gretchen is so, so humble.
Friday’s graduation ceremony for Gretchen’s class culminated in a special dance program. The dancers were amazing!  The students were middle school aged, so professional and enthusiastic. They’ve won national awards for their dancing and have also won national awards in math! Their sponsor told us they work with them and teach them time management so they can get their homework done and still have time for dance!
Again, it was an amazing trip.  Wish you all could have been there with us.