I had wanted to go to Africa when I was in university, but I got a summer job each year and regrettably let the opportunity pass me by. Now I'm near retirement and when a friend described to me his great experience of "voluntourism" in Rwanda, I said "It's now or never" when he asked if I was interested. I was a bit worried about safety in Rwanda given the terrible genocide in 1994, but I'm so glad I made the trip.
Rwanda has recovered very quickly from the bloodiest gernocide in recent history. There are new schools, hospitals and clinics, good main roads, and the lowest HIV/Aids rate in sub-Saharan Africa. Kigali has construction cranes building hotels and banks, middle class neighbourhoods, and town square parks, and it's not congested like other capital cities. One key reason is an end to tribal violence - the schools and media promote the message "We are all Rwandans", and tribal-based political parties are banned. Village Truth and Reconcilation courts dealt with genocide victims and murderers with merciful justice, and no death penalty. There is little evidence of bribery and corruption, and people seem to have a hopeful vision of the future.
Our small group from Developing World Connections worked in the southern village of Gashora doing finishing touches to the first of four Covaga Women's Co-operative trade centre buildings. Fifty women harvest an invasive weed clogging the local lake, then dry and weave the reeds into colourful baskets and handbags. Five African young men got summer jobs between college terms working with us. The work wasn't heavy - painting, puttying windows, pointing bricks and stonework with mortar - and the weather in July was ideal: dry, blue sky days of 30 degrees. The water bottle breaks tasted great, and the beer and companionship at day's end was wonderful. The hotel La Palisse was a 15-minute walk or 5 min. bicycle ride away, and had excellent buffet meals, though the hot water was a trickle if you didn't get first shower (we had budget rooms at about $15 USD a night, 3 meals included).
The most fun we had was a pick-up ball hockey game in the local basketball court with red and black sticks left behind from a previous DWC group. The college guys were better than us Canadians and the little kids were fearless goalies. The cheering was wild and the goats on the sidelines were bleating madly. Next time we'll have to do it daily!
What good can a few middle-aged Canadians do on a five-day construction blitz? To be honest our main contribution was an extra suitcase each of donated materials. The Mississauga Soccer Club donated 25 pairs of recycled soccer shoes (Gashoran kids mostly play barefoot) and enough uniform sets to fill a 50 lb. suitcase. We also contacted Notjusttourists.com and received a full suitacse of surplus hospital supplies and parmaceutical drugs worth over $5,000 geared to African needs. We also brought school supplies. We visited the local school and hospital clinic, and were warmly received; we were swarmed by excited children.
The most sombre and most gratifying day was the last. We visited the local Genocide museum, witnessing rows and rows of skulls and skeltons (over 500), wrote a message in the guest book, said a silent prayer and gave a donation for upkeep. An hour later, we were greeted by 50 Covaga women, both Hutu and Tutsi, giving us our pre-ordered baskets. They thanked us profusely, we sang Canadian songs on our guitar, and they followed with African singing and dancing in a great celebration. We toured Kigali the next day and went on a one-day safari before going to Uganda, but the poeple of Gashora stay in my memories.
It's expensive to travel to Africa (over $2,000 in airfare, but the flights are charitable tax deductions), and the medical shots were almost $500 (most drugs were covered by my medical plan), but it was the most memorable trip of my much-traveled life. The accommodation and meal expenses are minimal, so the longer you stay, it's more affordable than a Carribean or European holiday.
Would I go again? You bet, and I'd like to invite you to join us at Developing World Connections for a trip in July or August 2012.