Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Week in Rwanda

One of the main reasons I was interested in coming to the University of Illinois involved the work that some of the professors there were starting in Uganda.  They have been planning some projects with a Ugandan man named Peter, who runs an NGO in Uganda that focuses on supporting and training farmers, and which has begun to work on recovering resources from agricultural and human waste.  Peter already has a model farm, not all that far from where I had been living in Uganda, and the eventual goal is to set up something similar on a piece of land near Oruchinga, a refugee settlement in the southwestern part of the country, where we could work on a number of projects that would connect with the refugee community and the surrounding host communities.

Now, every year, a senior-level civil engineering class sends a team of students, along with at least one professor and several graduate students who act as teaching assistants (TAs), to another country.  Last year, the destination was Uganda, and the original idea was that Uganda would become a recurring destination, given this great connection with Peter.  Unfortunately, a trip to Uganda would not work this year, because the country’s presidential elections were being held during this past week, when the trip was scheduled to take place.  In Uganda (as in some other places), there is often a greater possibility of protests, riots, or something unsafe happening on days surrounding elections.  So, as an alternative, this past week, that class went to Rwanda, to visit Gihembe, a refugee camp in the norther part of that country, which is fairly close to the Ugandan border and Oruchinga.

Although I’ve not been directly involved with the class (I’m not one of the official TAs), I was given the opportunity to go along on this trip, because part of my research will involve working with Peter to design some of the sanitation and resource recovery systems that we think will be beneficial in these types of settings.

Although I was certainly looking forward to this opportunity to return to East Africa, I admit that, apart from a few meetings with my adviser, I was not thinking too deeply about this trip before going.  I had not talked about it with very many people.  Maybe it was because I wasn’t involved in planning the class and hadn’t really known or interacted with any of the twelve students going on the trip before we drove to Chicago a little over a week ago.  But, once we started our two-day travel marathon, I started to feel some anticipation.

After our flights, we arrived in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, on a Saturday evening, and met the four drivers (Moses, Moses, Ali, and Emma) who would be taking us everywhere in the coming week.  These guys were actually from Uganda, but they do safaris throughout East Africa, so some of them knew Rwanda fairly well.  They took us to a very nice hotel in Kigali, where we would be spending the night.

Sunday morning, we met Peter, had lunch in the city, and then drove north for about two hours to Gicumbi District, where Gihembe is located.  I spent the whole drive looking out the window and watching the countryside breeze past.  As we left Kigali, we passed by a network of wetlands, where rice was being grown, and we soon began snaking through the large green hills that characterize much of the country.  The look of rural Rwanda is very similar to that of Uganda – lush, green vegetation; dusty, reddish-brown soil; some houses made of bricks and mortar with metal roofs, and others made of dried mud and sticks; many people engaged in small-scale, rainfed agriculture; crops that include bananas, potatoes, maize, sorghum, beans, assorted vegetables, and tea.  I saw lots of terraces cut into the hillsides for farming, which was one difference with Uganda – I typically didn’t see terraces, even when people were farming on steep hillsides.  We ended up at a hotel in Gicumbi, several kilometers from the refugee camp.  The students and TAs spent the evening preparing the lab equipment that they had brought to test local water sources, while I grabbed a bunch of mosquito nets and hung them up for myself and the five male students on the trip – we were all sharing a place, and the ceilings were too high to reach, even for a tall guy like me standing on a bed, so hanging these things took a little creativity.

Over the next two and a half days, we visited a number of different locations – communities surrounding the camp, a school, a health center, and various water sources used by people in the camp and the surrounding communities (springs, a lake, a water treatment plant, and a set of storage tanks in a nearby valley where large tanker trucks are filled before driving up to the camp).  At these sites, the students would split up into groups, with some people using the equipment we brought to conduct field tests and collect samples of the water, which were taken back to the hotel where the students could do some more complex and time-consuming tests. Other groups of students interviewed people about issues surrounding water, sanitation, agriculture, and food security.  Obviously, there was a pretty significant language barrier.  The local language throughout the country is called Kinyarwanda, which is a Bantu language and does have some similarities with Luganda (but not enough for me to understand much of anything).  We typically had two to three people with us who could act as translators, so we could only do a couple of interviews at a time.

Given my interests in sanitation and agriculture, I typically shadowed the students doing the interviews, and occasionally added a few questions of my own into the mix.  I also did some very basic soil classification tests at one location, the results of which suggested that latrines in the area might be prone to collapse.  I quickly moved over to where two students were interviewing a group of men and women and asked if anyone had issues with their latrines collapsing.  Many people responded in the affirmative.  This is obviously a serious issue, but it was also a nice example of two different types of data agreeing with each other and showing me that the work we want to do could have quite a bit of value here.

The one place we didn’t visit was the refugee camp itself.  This may seem odd, given that the camp was our primary reason for coming to this place.  Indeed, we had planned to spend quite a bit of time in the camp, doing the same things we had been doing in those other locations.  The problem was that we needed a permission letter from a government ministry in Kigali, and we had not yet met with this ministry.  So, we couldn’t enter the camp.  Although this was disappointing for the group, it is also understandable – you probably wouldn’t want any random person or group to just walk into a refugee camp, where there are a number of complexities and social dynamics that may not be fully understood.

Personally, the major purpose for my tagging along on this trip was to see the camp and come away with a better understanding of that context.  So, the fact that we couldn’t enter did disappoint me quite a bit.  At the same time, though, I enjoyed the work that we were able to do.  It felt very good to be out in the field again, talking to people about their lives, experiencing a small portion of this reality.  I also had a few really interesting brainstorming sessions with Peter while we were riding in the cars.  It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the nuts and bolts of the more globally-focused research I often do in my office in the civil engineering building at the university, and I do enjoy that work.  I find it very interesting, and potentially very impactful.  But the work that I can contribute to in East Africa – now with the added focus on refugee communities, which are full of extremely vulnerable populations – I think that is where my heart truly lies.  I can get excited about either type of work, but I am more emotionally tied to one, even though it is not as broad in scope.

After our time in the northern part of the country, we returned to Kigali on Wednesday afternoon, back to the same hotel we stayed at the first night.  After arriving and eating dinner, the students did a few more tests on the water they had collected, while I worked on some other work not related to this trip.

Thursday was our safari day.  We woke up very early and left the hotel around 4:30 AM, so that we could reach a national park near the country’s eastern border with Tanzania when it was still relatively early in the morning.  Our drive through the park started very slowly, seeing the occasional antelope, warthog, buffalo, or zebra once in a while.  Right before stopping for lunch, however, we came across a single, extremely large elephant by a lake.  We ate lunch a little further along the lakeshore, near where a group of hippos was hanging out in the water.  After lunch, we hit the jackpot.  Our drivers did not expect to find any big cats, but we came across two lions, one female and one male, resting under a bush near a mound of soil.  This was the first time I had seen a male lion in the wild.  Very soon after that, we got pretty close to a group of about eight giraffes, some of which were obviously paired up in couples.  For the rest of the afternoon, we saw fairly large groups of zebras and antelopes.  I always love seeing wildlife in the wild, and this was a great experience.  But, it was a very long day.  We got back to the hotel around 6:00 PM, meaning that we had basically spent about thirteen and a half hours in the cars, and most of that driving was pretty bumpy and very dusty.  Everyone got out of the cars and immediately headed for the showers.

Friday was our last full day in Rwanda.  All of the students and some of the TAs visited the genocide memorial and then went to a craft market, while Peter, Benito (the professor teaching the class), Lauren, Aimee (two TAs), and I went to several meetings in the city.  We met with a few people working at USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) at the U.S. embassy, with the Rwandan government ministry that handles refugee populations in the country (and the ministry from which we would need to get permission to enter the camp), and with UNHCR (the UN refugee agency, which runs the camps and registers refugees when they enter the country).  I think all of the meetings went really well, and future groups shouldn’t have a problem getting access to the camp, now that our leaders know the process that needs to be followed.  We were all especially happy with the UNHCR meetings.  We actually had two meetings with this agency, one in the morning with technical program staff, and one in the afternoon with a few people who hold leadership positions.  All of these people seemed to be very interested in the projects we have planned in Uganda, and they definitely saw potential connections with the camps in Rwanda as well.  For example, one of the program staff mentioned that latrines were a significant issue in the camps (due to soil conditions that can increase the chance of collapse, which, again, agreed with the data we had been collecting), and that firewood for cooking is another major issue.  We were told that the UNHCR spends about $1 million per year just to provide firewood for all of the refugees in the country.  One of the technologies we will be researching can provide an alternative source of cooking fuel using energy generated from human and/or animal waste.  So, we could potentially help the UNHCR to save some money, a prospect in which they were particularly interested.  The less money they spend on firewood, the more they can spend on other critical needs.  I think we all came away from these meetings very encouraged and excited.

Friday evening at dinner, Benito and the TAs spent some time talking to the students about possible design projects that they might do for the class, based on the data that had been collected.  Benito also thanked Peter, two members of Peter’s staff who had accompanied us, and our four drivers.  I had been feeling a need to say some words of thanks for a while at this point, so I spoke up after Benito finished.  I also thanked our Ugandan colleagues – fortunately, I had been remembering more and more Luganda throughout the week, as I listened to the Ugandans converse with one another.  So, I expressed my thanks in Luganda.  I also thanked Benito and the TAs for their work putting the trip together, and for letting me tag along.  And finally, I thanked the students.  Over the past week, it’s been wonderful getting to know these people – it was actually my favorite part of the trip.  And, maybe, I was able to provide them with some small insight once in a while.  I thanked them for letting me share this experience with them, and I suggested that, either before we left the country or during our flights back to Illinois, they each take some time to reflect on the experience, to think about what they saw and heard, to try to understand in some small way the lives of the people they met – how those lives are different from ours, but also how they are similar and connected to ours.

Saturday morning was a relaxed day, as we slowly checked out of the hotel, got all of the luggage together and went to the airport.  The airport was not a relaxed experience, unfortunately – there were many questions about the equipment we were carrying, and checking in took much longer than it should have.  But, everyone made it (except for my water bottle, which I accidentally left behind in the chaos), and we had a safe flight to Kenya, and then on to Amsterdam.  We are now sitting in the Amsterdam airport, waiting for our last flight.  Our long layover here has given me plenty of time to write this extended summary of our trip.

Overall, this trip was not exactly what I expected, but it was certainly an enjoyable, enlightening, and enriching experience.  Besides the research ideas that have come out of my time here, and besides a slightly greater understanding of the lives of people in Rwanda, two key messages have come out of this trip for me:

First, as I’ve already said, East Africa needs to remain a part of my life.  This was my first time back to this area of the world since leaving Uganda at the end of my Peace Corps service, and it cannot be the last.  This place holds too much of my heart behind whenever I leave.  I find a piece of myself when I return.  Fortunately, I think my research will bring me back in the coming years.

Second, I love interacting with students.  Like I said, my favorite part of this trip has been getting to know these young people.  Hopefully, I provided something useful, and I would like to do that for more people.  A career path that involves teaching is becoming more and more attractive, even though I still have little actual experience with it.  I need to get more…

Can these two pieces work together as I move forward in my life?

I hope so.  I think it’s possible…

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Strangers on a Train

Disclaimer: This has nothing to do with my Peace Corps service in Uganda.  I just found this to be a very interesting and enlightening experience.

Waiting to board the train from Champaign to Chicago yesterday morning, I couldn’t help but notice that several of the passengers getting off were carrying their belongings in cardboard boxes or white mesh bags slung over their shoulders.  They were walking toward a group of people standing by the stairs, waiting to greet them.  It was obvious, watching these simple meetings, that these people had spent a fairly long time apart.  I gradually began to realize that the people getting off the train were coming home after having just been released from prison.

Boarding the relatively full train, I found an open aisle seat next to a young man in a sweatshirt and sweatpants with his hand on a large, stuffed yellow envelope resting on the tray table in front of him.  After putting my backpack in the luggage rack above, pulling out my book, and taking off my coat, I sat down.  After a normal greeting, the next words out of my seat partner’s mouth were, “I just got out of prison today.”  As I began talking with him, I looked around and realized that I was sitting in the middle of a group of people in the same situation as this man.  Around me were six young men, all about my age or a few years younger, all making their way to Chicago after having been released from prison today.

The man beside me quickly launched into descriptions of the family he would soon be seeing, the video games he was looking forward to playing, and some details regarding Chicago sports that I hadn't known.  He also talked about those people he would not be seeing.  He told me that his grandmother had passed away just a few days ago, and that her funeral would be held soon.  He had been released on parole just in time to make it back for that.

The two guys sitting in the seat across from us were interested in the book resting on my lap, Walking with the Wind, a memoir about the civil rights movement written by John Lewis.  One of the men said that he had heard about the book before.  They asked me if they could take a look at it, and I happily obliged.

In front of the two guys interested in my book, someone asked if he could use my phone.  None of these men had cell phones, and, again, I was happy to lend it to him.  I didn’t need it for anything at the time.  As it turned out, I didn’t get it back until the end of the nearly three-hour ride.  Noticing this about halfway through the trip, one of the guys next to me leaned over, touched my arm, and said, “You have to excuse him.  He hasn’t talked to his family in a long time.”  I didn’t mind, and the phone became very useful later on.  Near Chicago, we began frantically passing it around to everyone, calling mothers, brothers, and other family members, making sure that each person had someone coming to the train station to pick him up.  No one had enough (or any) money for bus or taxi fare.

Just before we pulled into the station, two of the guys spent some time making sure that a third understood his paperwork explaining how to get in touch with his parole officer.  “You don’t want to end up right back where you were,” they said.  As the train came to a stop, everyone grabbed their boxes of belongings and their envelopes containing parole instructions.  My phone made its way back to me, along with expressions of gratitude from all of the men.

I expected the train ride to be a few hours full of reading and dozing.  I ended up doing neither.  Instead, in this totally unexpected scenario, I was reminded of some important things.  In an era full of data, debates, posturing, and dehumanization, what struck me most about these men was their humanness.  They are people just like anyone else, not prison statistics or points to be used to support a position.  I don’t know what brought them to prison.  I didn’t ask, and, honestly, I don’t much care.  My personal experience with these men was characterized by laughter, shared interest, and mutual respect, and I believe that a few others around us on the train had a similar experience.  I am thankful for it.

Those of us living on the outside are not so different from those in prison.  All are deserving of respect at all times.  And, regardless of what has happened in the past, each moment in anyone’s life can be the start of something new, something better.