Our names are Porter Nenon (UVA 2016; PST), Kaija Flood (UVA 2016; MPP), and Adam Jones (UVA 2018; Economics) and we are living in Kigali, Rwanda this summer exploring higher education opportunities for refugees. Thanks to CGH, our summer has been filled with intellectually exciting, yet challenging, experiences that continue to re-shape the way we see the world. It would be impossible to convey the transformations we’ve undergone in words, but we’re going to try and break it down through three snapshots that we believe represent our most powerful moments in this resilient country.
Getting Lost in Musanze
During Adam’s first weekend in Kigali (July 16), he and Porter traveled to Musanze to hike between the “Twin Lakes” with fellow Hoos Alice Burgess (UVA 2017) and Emily Romano (UVA 2016). We started at Virunga Lodge, a beautiful resort in the hills of Rwanda, laden with free carrot cake (which we happily exploited). The man at the front desk helpfully pointed us to the start of Crater Trail, and sent us on our way. As we walked through local villages, children gleefully yelled “Mzungu!” as we passed. “Mzungu” is a Rwandan way of saying “white person”, and as a quick Wikipedia search will tell you, it literally means “someone who wanders around”. Both definitions applied to us that day, as our lack of navigational skills led to more wandering than hiking.
With children as our unofficial guides, we made our way between the lakes and finished our hike skipping stones from the shore. This is when the real fun began. Our taxi driver from the morning was supposed to meet us at the power station located between the two lakes at the bottom of the hill. Needless to say, things did not go according to plan. The team ended up walking to the nearest town (about an hour and a half walk) in search of our confused driver. Various Rwandans helped along the way, pointing us in the right direction or translating for our taxi driver over the phone. We eventually made it to town, found our taxi driver, and got back to Kigali just in time to eat some Mezze Fresh (Rwandan Chipotle).
This trip showed Adam something Porter, Alice, and Emily had already come to realize: Rwandans are incredibly, almost incomparably, kind. They willingly go out of their way to help someone. They’ll set down their jerry cans full of water, walk an hour and a half, and translate for you just to make sure you’re taken care of. So while getting lost was a minor inconvenience, Rwandan kindness made it all worth it.
Dinner on Lake Kivu
With Kaija now in Rwanda (July 28), our team was finally together. Our first mHub (the name of our project is microHub) trip was to Kibuye, a town in western Rwanda on the shore of Lake Kivu. We went with Benjamin Mudahera, an administrator for International Teams Rwanda. International Teams Rwanda runs several education initiatives in the nearby Kiziba refugee camp, and Benjamin graciously agreed to answer some of our questions over dinner. We ate at a local hotel, and the view from our table could not have been better. After fifteen minutes of taking photos from every possible angle, dinner was finally served.
Benjamin, a former refugee in the Kiziba Camp, shared some incredible insights into the culture of Rwanda and the plight of refugees. The refugees in the Kiziba Camp are all from the DRC, displaced during the First and Second Congo Wars. These wars were a direct result of the Rwandan Genocide in the 1990s. The hardest part of being a refugee, according to Benjamin, is trying to maintain some semblance of your culture. As a refugee, you have three options: 1) return to the DRC once it stabilizes, 2) integrate and assimilate into Rwanda, 3) get resettled in another country. Benjamin noted that only in the first option, the most unlikely, do the refugees get to preserve their culture. Benjamin himself represents the second option, and he concedes he is one of the few former refugees he knows that actively visits his family and friends back at the camp. Benjamin’s sister was resettled in Finland (the third option) and he remarks that she has left behind her DRC traditions. This visibly upset Benjamin as he took on a quieter tone during this part of the conversation. In the Great Lakes region of Africa, with a complicated history of various European colonists, a warranted distrust of international institutions, and continued political instability, it is easy to see why Rwandans and Congolese cling so tightly to their culture. It defines them and defies the multitude of forces that have tried to strip them of it.
As we ended dinner, Benjamin suggested Porter would be the next President (he noted he’s interested in politics), Kaija as a leading businesswoman in Rwanda (combining her love of entrepreneurship and Lake Kivu), and Adam the next Pope (after accidentally cursing at dinner). We paid the bill and made our way back to Kigali. This dinner showed the microHub team that maintaining one’s culture can be difficult in the face of political and social pressure, but it is also one of the only things refugees has left.
Tea Fields in Nyungwe
Travel has two main purposes: to learn about another culture, and to learn about yourself. As the microHub team traveled with Alice and Emily again, this time to Nyungwe National Park, we did a lot of the latter. The area surrounding Nyungwe is famous for its beautiful tea fields, and we spent the majority of our weekend hanging out in them. We took plenty of pictures, had a lot of laughs, and saw some jaw-dropping sites. We felt relaxed, finally breathing in air that wasn’t polluted with exhaust and dust. It was a time to decompress together, to enjoy each other’s company, and to reflect on our shared experiences. Both our team and theirs have had some life-changing experiences up until this weekend, and now was a time to relax together and reflect on what going back to the U.S. means.
Our main takeaway from those hours in the tea fields is the astonishingly unique connection a UVA student has to another. We all disagree about certain aspects of the university, take part in different CIOs, study various subjects, and come from different home towns, but there is something about being a Hoo that brings people together despite their differences. So in a random tea field in Rwanda, five UVA students not only learned about the country they’ve been in for weeks, but also about one another and their undeniable connection thanks to the University of Virginia.
Until Next Time
We would like to thank the CGH one last time for making this opportunity possible. We are incredibly grateful for our time in Rwanda, and look forward to sharing more stories in our next blog post. Murakoze (Thank you)!
-Porter, Kaija, and Adam