Last month my wife and I visited our sponsored child Agnes, who is studying to be a journalist in one of the finest schools in Rwanda. The school is run by a Christian philanthropy organization that provides a bright future for the desperately poor, and street boys of Rwanda, a country that suffered a devastating genocide 18 years ago. Many of the kids we met were without family or were the products of rape or prostitution. That is the sad part. The hopeful part is the present unity of the country as Rwandans (no longer Hutus and Tutsis). The trip defies description in many ways, though I have spent many words trying in the weeks since my return. Instead of trying to describe every sight, sound and emotion I thought I would share my goals. I had several while I was in the the country (not in priority order):
I wanted to know if my waxes would stand up to the heat of the African sun just South of the equator (Preview: they worked really well!)
We wanted to do more than send a few bucks a month. We wanted to show Agnes that we truly loved her and were committed to her for the long term. We also wanted to give her a hug. It was great.
Expose myself to things that are truly different than I would ever see in the United States and be as open to whatever I came across as possible.
My definition of what it means to be poor has shifted. My belief in the free market as a way to lift individuals out of abject poverty has been buttressed by my visit to a women's training center wherein young women too old for school are taught a skill that will ensure they have food on the table each night.
I didn't know this would happen but I had the opportunity to help fix two old sewing machines with my survival bracelet.
As you'll see below, on safari, I was not exactly at my most dapper. During the ten day trip I only shaved a couple times because I had to use bottled water to avoid getting some wacky disease from the local water and I didn't want to waste a bunch of perfectly good water just to get smooth cheeks every morning. Being in Rwanda makes you think a lot about priorities.
On this safari we spent hours in a Toyota van that had little to no air conditioning. We had to roll the windows up for the first hour or so to keep out the horse-flies (they are roughly the size of a small horse) that hang out in the tall grass at the entrance. It was pretty warm, as you might imagine. But the heat and long ride were totally worth it by the time we got to the giraffes, hippos and plain buffalo.
To be entirely honest, I wondered how my wax would hold up. I took this shot on the way home from seven hours of safari. I touched up once or twice during the day (mainly because O wiped the sweat off my face so much I lost some wax in the process) but my handlebars never drooped! I was using Primary6 and the experience made me feel really good about the product. I was two degrees below the equator and Primary6 delivered!
A few months ago my wife and I started sponsoring a 16 year old girl in Rwanda, named Agnes, who is studying hard in school and wants to one day be a journalist. We heard about a great organization named Africa New Life Ministries and they are completely legitimate. I saw it first-hand. Agnes was very sweet and had poise beyond her years.
She was very appreciative of what we brought and though very quiet, she warmed to us as the days went by. It was really cool to not only have the chance to meet her and give her a goat (that I named "Happy"). We also visited my mother-in-law and sister-in-law's sponsored girls. This is a shot of my wife's mom's girl in her first ride in a van going to her first restaurant. You can't not be thankful for what you have after meeting these great people.
Rwanda is the land of juxtaposition. I know it is a huge cliche, but I have never met such genuinely nice people. From the kitchen staff that made our meals at the guest house to the vendors in the market to the villagers that gathered around during the home-visits--we saw so many more smiles than I am accustomed to in the Midwest. The country was torn apart a brief 18 years ago. In 90 days close to a million Rwandans died during a methodical and evil genocide. In the years since, the country has begun the hard work of rebuilding. Literally.
We were watching homes under construction in every village and the power grid was small and spotty. The soil was a striking rust color and it made even weeds look awesome because of the contrast. Accordingly, flowers looked like magic growing out of the ground. With so many hills and gorgeous plants--a shack in Rwanda would be a $750,000 view in the States. Cars aren't too common and all of the taxis are little scooters. Here is one I snapped a picture of on our way back from a home visit.
Without getting into the politics, suffice to the world could have done a lot more to help during those dark days. We can't go back in time, but we can do something to help now. If you want to learn more about changing the life of a child check out ANLM.
Here is what changed me: I saw the stark contrast between the boys that were not yet sponsored, "street boys" that got two meals a week and the sponsored children who were fed daily, went to school and had health insurance. The difference between their lives is literally $40 per month. I have been skeptical about these faraway charities my whole life. Seeing the difference first-hand changed me. If you have ever wanted to know that you did something good, that made a dent in the universe. If you ever wanted to be absolutely sure of that, sponsor a child. Here is another child we visited and his proud father.
It was hard to leave each home after the visit. The hand marks on the back of our van were made by the excited children who were so glad we came and helped a family in their village and brought that village a new soccer ball. It was really and sad and joyful all at once.
I didn't grow up with a lot of money but I never hated those that did. I always was inspired by people who found a way to use their brain and their creativity to create something other people wanted to buy. Nobody is truly self-made, but I do believe we can all find ways to improve our lives if we work hard and learn from our mistakes. And I still maintain that is true in America. However, in Rwanda I saw people with absolutely nothing. Not a place to sleep, a next meal or even many good examples of how to climb out of the poverty. With strategic giving we can give them the tools to innovate and thrive.
My worldview of free market remains intact, but I now see a place for investing in the truly poor if they are working toward self-sufficiency. That is what I love about ANLM. They are providing education and vocational training not hand-outs or guilt-driven pity money. I heard story after story of kids that graduated and then turned around and sponsored kids, themselves. That is cool.
I did not expect to actually do something useful while in Rwanda. I mean I know hugging kids that have never been hugged and handing out soccer balls is technically something; but I never expected to do something actually productive. I don't think random white guys from Michigan are probably what Rwanda has on their list of "things we think will help us," but I had a cool opportunity to take apart the paracord bracelet I wore each day to use it as a drive belt for sewing machines at the women's vocational center. I gotta admit, it felt pretty cool.
Here are the rows of machines on which the women learn to sew.
Here is a machine with no drive belt…I see an opportunity…
"I love it when a plan comes together" :}
So I start unraveling. It took about 30 minutes…
This is a picture of me handing two seven foot lengths of 550 paracord to the lady who runs the sewing program. I kept the scraps as a reminder of the day.
Thanks for reading this post. I want you to know more about me and why I do what I do. A portion of the proceeds of CanYouHandlebar? go to this organization and someday I hope to release a collectors edition of my wax in packaging made in this very room.
For more information on sponsoring through ANLM, click here.
Thanks for reading!