Aspen Heights Awake in Rwanda – Day 1

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Hi everyone! Today you get to hear from me, Angela Conicelli, about the first full day in Rwanda for the 2016 Aspen Heights Awake team. Before I say anything about it, you should know that there is no possible way I am going to truly be able to express the emotional highs and lows that the team experienced today. However, I will do my best to describe this incredible day for you.

We woke up today to a lovely breakfast at our Iris Guest House (check it out on Trip Advisor). Fresh squeezed passion fruit juice, giant bunches of tiny bananas, and even milk and cereal. During our morning gathering, we were able to meet some of the Rwandan staff members from one of our partners, These Numbers Have Faces, and get a bit of background about what they do and also a briefing on what our week will look like. We met Scovia, Francois, and Jackie. All three were so incredibly inviting and kind using a phrase we have continued to hear in our short time here, “You are most welcome”. We heard about their families and their roles at These Numbers before embarking on our first day.

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Soon after our introduction, we were on the road to the Kigali Genocide Memorial and Museum. I know what you’re thinking… “THAT’S the first sight you saw?! What a sad way to start the trip!” Yes, that’s where we went first and truthfully, there is not possibly a more genuine way to experience this beautiful country other than to first learn its history and its incredible story of recovery, forgiveness, and growth.

The museum offered many gardens, all of which were symbolic of a different part of Rwandan history. Then we wandered on to exhibits that took us through the full history of how different ethnicities in Rwanda were first identified and enforced during colonialism all the way through the renowned 1994 genocide and even on to the post genocide period of dealing with justice and the emotional, physical, and mental aftermath for all of the affected Rwandan people (which, by the way, is everyone). The museum also dives into the issue of genocide on a global level and takes a look at all of the other examples that have occurred, which was embarrassingly eye-opening as I had no idea that some of these mass killings had taken place!

Perhaps the most moving section for most of the team was the children’s exhibit. As we wound through halls displaying adorable pictures of precious children as young as 15 months, we read about their favorite things; Favorite food: Chips, Favorite drink: Cow’s Milk, Best Friend: Her Mum. Following the list of endearing preferences was the caption “Cause of Death” followed by things such as, “Cut by a machete”, or “Thrown against a wall”, or “Clubbed to death”. This juxtaposition of happy memories and horrific torture was so difficult to comprehend but was also necessary for us to truly understand what happened here. The Rwandans are very set on sharing their story with the world, even the gruesome details. They do this to teach the world a lesson and to ensure that this never happens again to them or anyone else. It is a brave and inspiring message that truly touched the whole team very deeply.

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From that emotional visit we continued our journey other equally emotional destinations, although this time, the emotion was happiness as we were able to smile from ear to ear as little children followed our bus down the road yelling, “Mzungu, Mzungu” with such excitement. This basically means “foreigner” and especially “white person” and they could not be happier that we were there to visit their villages.

The team went to a school in Bugesera, where there are many students sponsored by Aspen Heights employees. One of these students is sponsored by James Wilson, and for the 3rd time now, James was able to connect with Dadi, give him gifts, and even check his report card to make sure he is keeping up with his studies! We visited the different classrooms and listened as children learned and laughed and sang the alphabet all while waving and smiling at their new Mzungu friends. After the school, we went on two home visits. First, we took Dadi with us to his parents’ home so we could meet the whole family. We hugged, prayed, and traded questions. Perhaps the most moving part of this visit was when the mother gave a gift to James as a thank you for the years he had given her son at the school. She presented a stunning handmade basket full of dried beans and let me tell you, there wasn’t a person there who wasn’t choking back tears. The fact that this family who had so very little wanted nothing more than to thank James and bless our whole group with prayers and love.

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The next home visit happened in another village, Kigali, and was a first time meeting for our team member Jack and his sponsored child. Again, the family was so welcoming and patient with us as we tried to ask questions and snap photos with them. Jack even got a quick game of soccer in with his child before giving up with a happy high-five (due to the fact that Steven was WAY better at soccer than him…or anyone else in our group for that matter!)

While the rest of the team went on these visits, Desmond was able to take a bit of a road trip to visit his sponsor child as well. Visiting the children is always so special, but this meeting was particularly exciting because in the 2 other times Desmond has been to Rwanda, he has never been able to visit Alley even though he has been sponsoring the young boy the whole time. This time, he finally got to hug the boy and tell him to keep up his studies so he can make his dream of becoming a doctor come true.

Once we were all reunited on our bus and on the way home, there were smiles, naps, and quiet moments as we all thought about what we had witnessed. We saw the past of Rwanda at the memorial and then were able to help impact the future of the country by helping to educate these amazing kids who will be the next leaders and the next generation responsible for keeping the beautiful growth of Rwanda on track.

Signing out with anticipation of tomorrow,

Angela

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