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Africa: the flagship continent when it comes to international volunteering - at least it always has been for me.
It's hard to believe that it was only a year ago that I boarded my first flight to Africa. In search of inspiration (post-cancer treatment), I headed to Cape Town for a six-week volunteer program with Cross-Cultural Solutions. It was this experience that sparked the idea for my volunteer trip around the world, so I knew I had to include Africa in my global itinerary.
After explaining my long-term goal of creating the Fresh Chapter Foundation - to help other cancer survivors volunteer internationally as a way for them to heal emotionally from cancer - the CEO of GVN suggested a project in Rwanda. She was interested by the parallels between surviving genocide and surviving cancer and thought that a trip to Rwanda might inspire cancer survivors to move forward with their lives. If you read Rwanda - Our Nightmare and Our Dreams, you'll know that she was right.
If this piques your interest, read on to learn about the ins and outs of daily GVN life in Gisenyi. As for traveling and volunteering in Africa, here's an excerpt from an Inside Scoop email I wrote to friends and family while on the road.
Hello from the beautiful Lake Serena Hotel.
Don't worry - I'm not using fundraising dollars to stay here, but it's the perfect place to have a cool drink and sit down after seven hours with 20 babies 0-1 years old, as well as a great place to pirate the Internet, given that the Volunteer House has no wi-fi (often no electricity and definitely no hot water). I'm actually a little surprised they let me into this hotel given that I smell like baby spit-up and haven't showered in days. But, hey, I'm wearing a scarf on my head (a la Angelina Jolie or Ashley Judd...and...TIA (This Is Africa!)
YOU KNOW YOU'RE IN AFRICA WHEN...
- You arrive in Uganda and look for the International Connections sign only to be pointed to a tiny room with no windows and no staff. You sit on a discarded broken bench and sweat through every inch of your (put on in the cool weather of England) clothing before a tired woman in tight cornrows finally arrives. She motions for you to follow her and then points for you to leave your passport with a bored customs officer. You tentatively loosen your grip on your documental lifeline and then follow her to a wheezing luggage belt. 60 minutes later, your luggage arrives and you haul it over to an "office" where the woman with braids has told you to meet her. Of course by now, she is nowhere to be found and neither is your passport, so you sit and wait. Eventually she materializes and she motions for you to leave your luggage and follow her. You fist pump the air when you stop to pick up your passport, but then you realize that your luggage is not coming with you as you wade out into the tarmac's humid air and then follow her up a rickety staircase to the post security area where everyone is waiting to board one of a number of other inter-Africa flights that depart in the middle of the night. You pray your luggage will somehow make it on the flight.
- You alight from your tin can Ethiopian Airlines aircraft at 2 AM Rwandan time and climb onto a dilapidated passenger bus that chugs to the arrivals area. You pretend you don't notice that everyone is staring at you and probably thinking "Who is this crazy-ass white girl who decided to arrive in Africa in the middle of the night?"
- You sail through customs and then watch plastic-wrapped suitcase after plastic-wrapped suitcase (you wonder how you missed the memo that your luggage was supposed to be sealed in airport grade Saran Wrap) tumble onto the conveyor belt. You are so tired that it feels like your eyes are bleeding, but you keep watching the belt until it stops moving. You still don't see your (maybe stolen and the contents distributed to people who need your stuff more than you do??) suitcase. You show someone with a badge your luggage claim ticket and he points you to a darkened office where your entrance causes a woman to shoot up off the desk and wipe the drool from her face. She half-heartedly fills in a form and says she'll call you if your luggage shows up. You have absolutely no faith that you will ever see your luggage again because she can't tell you whether it made it on the plane and has carried on to Ethiopia or is still languishing in Uganda. You kick yourself for not putting a change of clothes or your prescription medication in your carry on, like every good guidebook tells you to.
- The next day your luggage arrives (hallelujah!), but only after you call the airport four times and get hung up on thrice. After you've almost lost hope, you finally receive a call back with the news: "it's here" - and when you get to the airport, you're so overjoyed that you almost kiss the worker who smells like he hasn't showered in about a year (but hey... by now you smell about the same).
I could go on. But, instead I'll just say that even with all of the smells, cold showers, lack of reliable Internet, and a worker at the orphanage who continues to suggest that I give her my plastic SWATCH watch as a gift, I love Africa and I'm so happy to be here in all of my sweaty, spit-up-covered glory.
Of all of the places in the developing world where I've traveled, the countries of Africa feel the most like home to me. The children are beyond beautiful, and I spent my two weeks with GVN Rwanda in absolute heaven as one baby after another passed through my arms. I loved my long days at the orphanage so much that I didn't even mind squeezing into dilapidated vans with what felt like 100 other locals on the 30-minute ride to and from Nyundo, where the orphanage is based. I got used to the cold bucket "showers," the basic food, and even the power outages, although a hot shower was first on my list of priorities when I made it to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. Overall, the people of Rwanda captured my heart, and I would jump at an opportunity to go back.
If you are planning your own volunteer trip to Rwanda with GVN, here are just a few tips from the field:
- Bring plenty of granola bars or trail mix. The volunteer days are long and it's hard to find snack food (outside of Pringles and chocolate bars) in many African countries.
- Carry your prescription medication/ contact lenses/ a change of clothes in your carry-on luggage. You may or may not get your luggage back if it gets lost.
- Try to learn a few basic phrases in the local language before you come. For Rwanda in particular, language can be a barrier to some of the placements and it helps to come prepared.
- Travel with photocopies of your passport. You never know when you might have to hand it over and it will help you feel more confident if you have photocopies as back-up.
Even though it was well worth it, you need to ready yourself for an emotional experience. The Genocide Memorial is unlike anything I have experienced, and the pain and the lingering emotional trauma feels very present amidst many of the people you meet. That being said, the grace and resilience of the Rwandan people inspired me more than I can say.