Chelsea Skovran Recounts her Experiences in Rwanda

This post is part two of a series of student experiences in Rwanda from this summer. Here, Indiana University student Chelsea Skovran writes about her trip. Read more student perspectives here.

Sunday June 19th, 2011: Let the Adventure Begin!

So today was the official start of what I know is going to be an amazing adventure! We met at the airport in Indianapolis a little bit before 5:00 AM to check in and get ready for our flight. I knew that this day was going to be a very long travel day and I was already really tired from the day before. Yesterday I flew from Los Angeles and didn’t exactly have the easiest travel day. I had a layover in Chicago and my flight to Indianapolis kept getting delayed due to mechanical problems. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that the plane didn’t take off with mechanical problems but it got to the point where the flight may have had to be canceled and there weren’t any other flights to Indianapolis that day. I definitely experienced a couple of really tense hours until my flight finally took off, 3 hours late but I made it to Indianapolis that night and that was all that mattered.

We flew from Indianapolis to Washington D.C. to Ethiopia to Rwanda, with a stop in Uganda. Overall the day was that eventful. The flight to Ethiopia was delayed an hour but other than making the 12.5 hour long flight even longer the flight was pretty smooth.

Monday June 20th, 2011: First Glimpses of Rwanda

By the time we landed in Ethiopia it was already Monday and the excitement of arriving in Rwanda started to quickly sink in, even though I had only gotten about one hour of sleep since we left Indy. The flight to Rwanda was again pretty uneventful. I didn’t sleep at all but I had a feeling that when we landed in Rwanda I was going to completely forget about the lack of sleep.

A Fountain outside the Kigali Memorial Center

When we landed in Rwanda I was really excited to start exploring and learning as much as I could about Rwanda in our two week visit! After we met our driver, Abdul, and our translator, Simon Peter, we headed to the Genocide Memorial. I think that it was a perfect place to start our journey in Rwanda because it made us remember the past events that Rwanda has gone through to get to where it is today. It was an extremely powerful experience that started before we entered the building. Outside there was an eternal flame, similar to the one in front of JFK’s grave in Arlington. The overall experience at the memorial was very powerful and eye-opening: from the eternal flame to the exhibit inside the building to the mass graves outside.

After the memorial we headed to explore downtown Kigali for a little bit. It was really cool to walk around and start to explore. One thing that I quickly noticed was the people staring at us. We were one of the only tourists walking around and it seemed wherever we went people stared. I have a feeling that people will be staring at us wherever we go; it’s kind of cool but I don’t think I will ever get used to it.

Then we headed to our hotel, which I was really excited about because I was so tired and ready for a good night’s sleep.

Tuesday June 21st, 2011: Welcoming Ceremony at Kabwende Primary School

This was the day that I was really looking forward to: heading to Kinigi and visiting the Kabwende Primary School to meet the place and people behind this trip. I was looking forward to the rest of the trip and exploring Rwanda but the reason for this trip was to help Kabwende and hand out the books that we have been working on for the past year to the students and teachers.

The day started off a little bit earlier than was necessary. The night before we were told to wake up early to get to breakfast in time to get some food; the food sometimes ran out quickly. I roomed with Madelyn that night and we both decided to wake up around 6:15 AM in order to get ready and get to breakfast around 7:00AM. After we got back from breakfast we realized we could have easily slept another hour. I had had a good night’s sleep so the extra hour would have been nice but it wasn’t necessary. Plus we got coffee on our way to Kinigi which helped a lot; the coffee was really good, different but in a good way.

The drive to Kinigi took about 2-3 hours and was so beautiful! I loved seeing the busy city and suburbs turn into the very hilly and green countryside; definitely nothing like I have seen in America. Once we got settled in at the hotel we headed to the school for the welcoming ceremony. To get to the school we had to walk up this road which took about 10 minutes. On our way up I noticed a bunch of kids in yellow and blue uniforms coming towards us. It was so cool to walk to the school with the students; I was so excited to see them and talk to them and they were so excited to see us and talk to us, more than we were which is hard to believe. They would ask us questions like: “How are you?” “What’s your name?” “How old are you?” “Where are you from?” “What grade are you in?” The walk to the school is an experience that I will definitely not forget.

The Bridge to Kabwende

In order to get to the school we had to walk over a “bridge” a.k.a. six logs placed next to each other. Ali had forewarned us about it and it was definitely scary. You tried not to look down but if you didn’t then you couldn’t look where you are stepping but if you did you saw the rocks that were about 10 feet below.

I really enjoyed our first day after the school. We met the headmaster and teachers, along with the students from the afternoon classes. The ceremony was very cool; there was a lot of singing, dancing, and tricks such as cartwheels and flips. As the ceremony kept progressing I noticed that the students started to get closer and closer to us; they were all so intrigued with us and had the biggest smiles on their faces. I was definitely looking forward to spending more time at the school.

Wednesday June 22nd, 2011: Handing Out Books!!!

So today was the day that I had been looking forward to for a really long time: we got to hand out the books!! I remember when we first started writing the stories and then edited them along with the stories from Rwanda and now after a year of hard work by so many people we get to see this year’s book come full circle.

This day proved to be a very exciting day even before we got to the school. We tried to drive to the school using a different route than the one we took yesterday because we had all of the books and didn’t want to have to carry them over the bridge. In the end the alternate route didn’t end up working out but on our way there we saw a gorilla! We couldn’t get close to it because it was in a gated area but we were still able to get some pictures of it and it was really cool to see.

Once we got to the school the fun and excitement really set in. All of the students and teachers were all very excited to see us and to receive the books. Handing out the books was an amazing experience. I have never seen kids that excited to receive a book. Most people in America see a book and don’t think much about it; it’s just another book to them. That’s not how it is for the kids at Kabwende; a book of their own is a luxury for them and they definitely appreciated it. Handing out the books was an amazing experience and I have never seen a happier group of kids in my life!

Students at Kabwende Hold Their New Books

All of the kids were amazing and really excited to see us and get a book but there was one that stood out to me. She was in P1 and as soon as I walked in she got up and started jumping up and down. Then I started handing out the books to kids sitting near her and she kept saying “Hello” and it seemed like I couldn’t give her a book fast enough. As soon as I gave one to her she grabbed it and hugged it and then finally sat down and started looking at it. She most likely didn’t understand a single word in it but it didn’t matter to her, she was just happy to have it.

After we handed out the books and Jordyn and Kiara taught a writing workshop for the Rwandan students who were starting to write stories for next year’s book we headed to Clemente’s house. It was very cool to drive through the village and see where he lived; definitely not a place that most tourists get to visit. People were following us and they were very intrigued with us. It was very nice to meet his family and get to see where he lived and it was a great way to end an amazing day.

Thursday June 23rd, 2011: Prefer, Chapate, and Computers

Today started out with a visit to Prefer, which is a preschool that was set up by a Canadian women. All of the kids were so cute and would run up to us and hugs us as soon as we came into the room. I got to sit in one of the classrooms for a few minutes and it was very cool to see how the teacher and students interacted. The students weren’t really distracted by us because they were used to visitors in the form of volunteers sitting in their class. I was surprised at how good their English was and it was great to see how much enthusiasm they have towards learning, the same enthusiasm that I saw at Kabwende. They weren’t distracted until I took out my camera to take pictures of the class. One thing that I quickly noticed about the students at Kabwende and Prefer is that they love to have their pictures taken and they love getting to look at them.

After hanging out at the school for about an hour we headed back to the hotel for a lesson on making chapati. I, along with everyone else, had a great time learning how to make it and helping out by rolling out the dough. The best parts were that we got to eat it for an afternoon snack and we got the recipe for it!

Making Chapati at the Kinigi Guesthouse

Chapati Recipe:

1 kilo flour

3 eggs

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons salt

1 liter milk

Knead dough on table with flour

Make into balls

Roll out

Cook with oil (clean pan out after each time)

After our very delicious afternoon snack I helped Madelyn with computer training for the teachers. However it didn’t go as planned; the internet was really slow and the teachers were so excited to learn as much as they could. We had planned to meet with all 29 teachers but we only got to about 15. All of the teachers wanted us to help them but we had to switch tasks and work with them on their English. That went really well; the teachers were able to understand most of what we were saying. It was also a lot of fun to talk them and learn about Rwandan culture and they really enjoyed learning about life in America. Overall, it was a great and very productive exercise.

Then we were off the visit two of the teacher’s houses. I really enjoyed seeing their houses and neighborhoods. By the end of the second visit I was so full from eating fruit and nuts and drinking about 3 bottles of Fanta. I love Fanta but 3 bottles in one night was definitely a lot.

Once we got back to the hotel we did our nightly reflections, which I was in charge of this night. So much had happened, not just that day but throughout the entire trip so far, that I thought it would be a good idea to sum up the experience thus far in four words or phrases. I enjoyed it and it seemed like everyone did as well. My words: frustrating, exciting, memorable, and tiring.

Friday June 24th, 2011: Kapanga and Farewell to Kabwende

The day started out with a visit to Kapanga, which is a primary and secondary school that wasn’t too far away from Kabwende. Initially we thought that we were going to be able to drive up to the school but we took a different road and had to walk about 15-20 minutes. It was a nice walk except that it was really hot and I kept tripping over the rocks. We met with Stephanie who is a Peace Corps volunteer that teaches at the secondary school. We got to meet with her class and talk to them for a little bit and then they asked us some questions. It was fun to talk to them and learn more about Rwanda culture and they seemed to enjoy asking us questions. Then we got to sit down with her and some of the other secondary teachers and ask questions about the education system in Rwanda. Also we got to ask her questions about her Peace Corps experience and it made me think about joining it after college but I also know that her experience is better than others so I doubt that I will join. It was still cool to hear about her experience with adjusting to Rwandan culture and the challenges that she had faced and still faces.

After that we headed back to the hotel and Madelyn and I headed to buy some baskets. Next to the entrance to the Volcanoes National Park, which is located near the school, there is a place that sells baskets. The thing that is really cool about these baskets is that they are made right next to the shop. There were so many pretty ones and I am really glad with the ones that I got and plus they weren’t that expensive.

Once our free time was over we headed back to the school one last time for this trip. We helped the 15 students that were chosen to write stories for next year’s book make illustrations for them. Then Caitlin led a community dialogue with some of the teachers, parents, and students to find out ways that we can better the project in the future. Everyone seemed excited about it and they came up with some good ideas such as helping raise money for the project and setting up an English club. Their most popular idea was sending students and teachers from Kabwende to visit America. It is a great idea and it would be amazing for them but it’s not in the project’s budget right now but it’s definitely something to keep in mind for the future.

Once the community dialogue was over we had another Fanta and hung out for a little just talking to some of the teachers but mainly to people in our group. Then it was time to say farewell to Kabwende. It was hard to believe that our time at the school was already over; I would have loved to have spent more time there! We did accomplish a lot the few days that we were there and I had an amazing time! The teachers and students at the school were so nice and welcoming and the experience there is something that I will never forget!

Saturday June 25th, 2011: Lake Kivu

After a couple of busy yet amazing days at Kabwende we headed to Lake Kivu for a day of relaxation. It was the perfect day to go too; the sun was out, the sky was clear, and it was warm which was unlike the last couple of days. For most of the time that we were at Kinigi it had been cloudy, rainy, and chilly. The drive to Lake Kivu, like all of the other drives, was very pretty and I really enjoyed seeing more of Rwanda. On our way there we passed by an old Kenyan refugee camp that is no longer in use. We also passed by a prison which is also used as a working camp. This was the first of a few that we were going to see throughout the rest of the following week. It’s kind of interesting that for a country as small as Rwanda that there are so many prisons. I am not sure if interesting is the right word but I can’t really think of anything else to use.

Lizard at Lake Kivu

We found a restaurant to hang out at that was right by the water and it was so pretty! It was extremely nice to just hang out and relax for a couple of hours. Also there were a lot of cool things to take pictures of such as the flowers, lizards, and the lake itself.

The rest of the day was pretty relaxing as well. Once we got back to Musanze we met up with Clemente and headed to another teacher’s house. The teacher was just as welcoming as all of the other ones and it was a very nice visit. Then for dinner we headed to a pizza place and while there we meet with Jan, who is a vet from Indianapolis who is spending two years working with the gorillas. Her stories about traveling throughout the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda studying and tracking the gorillas were incredible. It was also nice to talk to someone who was from America and how the culture shock of going from America to Rwanda was and more importantly how it was going back to America. The culture shock when coming to Rwanda was big, which was something that I expected, but I am interested to see how it’s going to be like going back to America. There is definitely going to be a culture shock, probably not a big one because we will only be in Rwanda for two weeks but there is going to be one.

Sunday June 26th, 2011: Goodbye Kinigi, Hello Kigali!

Today wasn’t too eventful. We left Kinigi kind of early (around 8:30AM) and arrived in Kigali a few hours later. It was a really nice day and it was the best day to see the volcano that was behind Kabwende and I was able to get some pictures before we left. I was definitely going to miss Kabwende and everyone there!

Once we got to Kigali we spent a few hours hanging out downtown and then returned to the hotel and had a very relaxing night. Also, this was the first time all week that we had Wi-Fi so everyone was checking e-mails and Facebook and checking in with family and friends back home.

Monday June 27th, 2011: Nyungwe

Today started off early; we left Kigali around 7:00AM and headed to Nyungwe. It took about 5-6 hours but the drive was beautiful as always. Once we got to the park we had to drive a while to get to our hotel and our way we stopped off to stretch our legs and figure out what hikes we wanted to do that day and the next. Lauren, Abdul, Jeff, Caitlin, and I decided that we wanted to do the Canopy Hike and we stopped off at the right place because the rest stop was actually where the hike started. I was kind of hesitant to do the hike at first because I am kind of afraid of heights but I thought it would be an adventure and it would be nice to hike a little after sitting in the bus all day. The hike was gorgeous and a lot of fun. The canopy itself wasn’t too bad, kind of freaky to walk on because it was so high up but it was a lot of fun and in the end I was really glad that I did it. All of us did the canopy walk except for Abdul. Once we hiked to where it was he got freaked out and even though all of us kept pushing him to do it he ended up just waiting for us to get back.

Me on the Canopy Walk at Nyungwe

Then it was back in the bus for another hour until we got to the hotel. The hotel wasn’t too bad, definitely not the nicest place that we were staying at but it was a lot nicer than I was expecting. Also I didn’t plan on spending much time in our room especially when we discovered that there was a fire pit. I had a great time sitting by the fire and talking to everyone.

Tuesday June 28th, 2011: Waterfall Hike

So today everyone in our group, except Caitlin and Madelyn, went on a hike to this gorgeous waterfall. We had to left kind of early in the morning and the hike took a few hours. We ended up driving to the official start of the trail. It wasn’t clearly marked, it was very narrow at first but it was so cool! We parked right near a tea plantation and it didn’t look like there was a dense rainforest nearby but once we got to the path that quickly changed. It felt like we were stepping into a completely different world: on one side there is a tea plantation and lodge and then on the other side is this huge, lush rainforest. It’s kind of hard to describe but it was such an amazing experience! The hike was 5km to the waterfall and then 5km back and it wasn’t too bad. The trail was at times very slippery and I slipped a couple of times. We got so close to the waterfall too. There was this big rock that we all stood on and you could feel the water from the water fall! Overall the hike was definitely not the easiest but I have been on harder hikes before; it also didn’t help that on the way back I had an asthma attack. But I was fine and ended up relaxing the rest of the day.

Wednesday June 29th, 2011: Farewell to Ali, Jordyn, and Kiara and Meetings with USAID and IEE

Today was the day that we left Nyungwe and headed back to Kigali to drop off Ali, Jordyn, and Kiara at the airport. It was hard to believe that it was time to say goodbye to them and that we only had a few days left in Rwanda. We had grown really close as a group over the past 11 days and it was going to be really weird with them not being with us! The drive out of the park was a lot of fun because we saw a couple of monkeys and they were so cute! Also on the drive back we wrote out final reflection, which Ali was in charge of. The reflection was to write a letter to ourselves about what we wanted to remember about the trip. Ali was then going to send us the letter in about a year. I thought that this was a really good idea because it is a good way for us to remember in a year what we felt during the trip and it will remind us of the things we learned.

After they left we went to the US Embassy to meet with Molly Bostrom who works with USAID. She told us about the work that USAID is doing with education in Rwanda and what their goals are. It was really informative and really cool is see that the US is working hard to help education in Rwanda. Also it was cool to walk through the US Embassy, kind of weird too. We had just been driving around Kigali and then when we walk into the embassy we see a lot of red, white, and blue decorations; they were setting up for a 4th of July celebration.

Then we headed back to the hotel to meet with Nate Hamilton from IEE (International Education Exchange). I really enjoyed talking to him and learning about IEE. IEE works with schools in Rwanda and sends people who speak English to the schools and they work with the teachers to improve their English and teaching methods, that way their students not only know how to speak English but they can also comprehend it. It sounds like an amazing organization!

Also, at dinner we met up with Carmen who is a former GVer who was on her way to volunteer at Prefer for two months. She is spending the remaining part of our trip with us and I was excited to get to know her!

Thursday June 30th, 2011: Butare

Today we drove to Butare and on the way there we visited an ancient history museum, an art museum, and the Nation Museum of Rwanda. I really enjoyed all of the museums; it was great to learn more about Rwanda. Once we got to Butare Simon Peter took us on a tour of the National University, which is where he went to school. It was really cool to walk around and look into some of the classes and just see how life is like for a college student in Rwanda. It is surprisingly similar to America. The major difference was that there aren’t co-ed dorms but besides that it doesn’t seem too different, at least from the outside. While we were there we also went to the National Arboretum which was really pretty and fun to walk through. Simon Peter told us that he used to study a lot there and he told us about a time where he was studying and was attacked by monkeys! I can definitely picture him studying one minute and then running away from monkeys the next!

On our way back to the hotel we stopped off at an ice cream shop, which happens to be the only shop in Rwanda that makes the ice cream on location and it tasted so good! Overall Butare was really nice and it was fun to walk around the city and explore a little bit. Plus I was able to get most of my souvenir shopping done there.

Friday July 1st, 2011: Happy Independence Day Rwanda!

Today marked the final full day of our adventure in Rwanda. It was hard to believe but I wasn’t going to get sad just yet, I had planned on getting the most out of our last day. We headed back to Kigali in the morning and on our way there we stopped off at this pottery place. The pottery was all handmade and it was so pretty! It was hard to choose what to get but in the end I got two mugs and a small vase. On our way back we stopped off at a small genocide memorial. Lauren thought that it was appropriate to end our trip and I totally agree with her. We started out the trip with visiting one for us to keep in mind of what the country has gone through.  Throughout the past almost two weeks we had traveled throughout the country and seen the progress that is being made but the past still happened and it’s important not to forget what the country went through to get to where it is today.

Once we got to Kigali we stopped off at two markets to buy a few things and then made our way to downtown. I was able to buy last minute souvenirs at a craft market and also got some Rwanda coffee and tea, which is amazingly good! Then we headed to Abdul’s house; it was very cool to see where he lived and we got to explore his house a little bit. In the teacher’s houses we only saw the living room so we weren’t able to get a good idea with what the rest of their house looked like. We spent a few hours there and Abdul’s best friend, whose name was also Abdul, came by and I really enjoyed talking to both of them. We asked them their opinions about certain leaders and questions about their past and it great and really informative to hear what they had to say.

Then it was back to the hotel to start packing and to get ready for the long journey home that started the following day. We had dinner at the hotel and it was a lot of fun; we played cards to help some of the time pass (dinner normally took 1-2 hours). Everyone seemed to have a great time; it was definitely going to be weird not sitting down for a few hours to have dinner with these people.

Saturday July 2nd, 2011: Goodbye Rwanda! 

Me and Abdoul at the Airport in Kigali

So today was the day that we left Rwanda after two amazing weeks! It was a pretty uneventful day. Carmen had left early in the morning so she had said goodbye to us the night before. After breakfast we headed to a bookstore and craft store for last minutes things. Then we headed to lunch, which was by far one of the fastest meals we had the entire trip. It was good and we got to hang out there for a couple of hours until we had to leave for the airport. Madelyn, Jeff, and I ended up taking a walk to this really nice hotel and just walked about for a few minutes for something to do. Then we went back and hung out with everyone else: Caitlin, Lauren, Abdul, and his friend who I had met early in the week who remembered me because I have the same name as the football team Chelsea. Anyways, soon it was time to head to the airport and say our final goodbyes. It was really hard to leave Abdul and Rwanda in general because I had experienced so much and I felt like I had grown so much as a person. I have so many good memories in Rwanda and I was going to miss it so much!

Our first flight was to Ethiopia, which was not too bad. Then we had a few hours to spend at the airport until our 16 hour flight to Washington D.C.

Sunday July 3rd, 2011: Goodbye Africa, Hello America!

Our official final day of the journey was spent traveling. The 16 hour flight to Washington D.C. wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be; I watched a few movies and slept for a few hours which was nice. When we landed in D.C. it felt good to be back in America; it forgot how much I missed it especially the food! As soon as everyone got their tickets we headed to our gate and everyone head to get food; Starbucks never tasted so good! Lauren, Caitlin, Jeff, and Madelyn were all on a flight to Indianapolis while I was on a flight to Los Angeles; I was initially going to fly with them to Indianapolis and then go to Los Angeles but I really wanted to get home as soon as I could so I flew straight to Los Angeles from D.C. Luckily my gate was close to theirs and my flight left close to the same time as theirs so I was able to hang out with them for a while. We just hung out and talked, which was a really nice way to end our trip. It is definitely going to be weird not seeing them every day.

Final Reflection:

I had been able to reflect on what I experienced throughout the entire trip but on the 5.5 hour flight to Los Angeles. I had a lot of time to reflect. I knew that this trip was going to have an impact on my life, I just didn’t realize how much. When I start on this journey I was pretty sure of what I wanted to do with my life, I was majoring in Environmental Management and my biggest passion was the environment. Now, I am not sure; I love the environment and always will but after meeting everyone and experiencing everything that I had over the past two weeks I found a new passion for education and helping education systems develop. As I discovered this passion I started to realize that maybe I am not sure of what I want to do with my major and my life. I know that I want to make a difference and be involved in some type of government organization, such as USAID but I am not sure of the details anymore. I entered Rwanda with a lot of questions and I leave with just as many, if not more. Even though I am not sure of my future and afraid of the uncertainty, I am happy because I feel like I know so much more about myself. Once I sit down and go through all of the thoughts running through my head I think I will be able to get a better sense of the new direction I want to take in life and I would have not been able to discover all of the things that I have about myself if it wasn’t for this trip to Rwanda and all of the people involved. I will definitely never forget this life-changing trip to Rwanda!

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