Friday, June 10, 2011

Muraho from Rwanda!

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My first stop of the trip was in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. Kigali was our base for the first week of the trip while we toured UNICEF projects around the country. Most people don’t know much about Rwanda. In fact a shocking amount of Americans don’t know much about Africa at all. Many people think Africa is a country not a continent and that all of Africa is a wild place with gigantic animals roaming around mingling with people on large savannas with dry hot temperatures. Africa is actually made up of 53 independent countries each with their own tribes, cultures, traditions and ecosystems. Rwanda has made remarkable progress since the genocide and is working on their Vision 2020 of “Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy” to transform its agricultural based economy into a knowledge-based hub for business, information technology and a new tourist destination in the ever growing eco-tourism field. Rwanda is an absolutely stunning country made up of beautiful green hills, blue lakes and dense jungle that provide shelter to some of the most endangered wildlife in the world like the mountain gorilla.

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However, when most westerners think of Rwanda they do not think of this beautiful green land, instead they think of the 1994 Genocide. I won’t talk too much about the genocide here. I did visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, which was an incredibly moving experience, but I'm only posting a couple of photographs from the memorial centre here and for more information and images I'm sending you over to the Memorial Centre's website to learn more about the history of the genocide- warning some images on the sight are very graphic, but I do encourage you to go the website by clicking here and the centre is a must-see first stop on any trip to Rwanda.

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I was only 6 years old when the genocide occurred and did not know much about it other than that it was a horrible violent massacre in Africa, which in the west we hear about all the time and become hard to differentiate. I never learned about it in school and it was never talked about since. The western world didn’t care about it when it happened and didn’t help and since then we have done nothing to educate ourselves about what happened and what has changed. In the documentary Long Way Down where Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman travel from Scotland to South Africa on motorcycles they stop in Rwanda and visit one of the genocide memorial sites. When they speak to their local fixer about the genocide they ask if he was upset that the rest of the world didn’t help. The fixer shrugs it off and says the world was busy, the day before the violence broke out Kurt Cobain died. That line struck me so intensely as a perfect example of the lack of knowledge the western world has on Africa, yes it was sad that the lead singer of Nirvana died of a drug overdose, but more than 1,000,000 people dying in 100 days…a whole lot more important.

Rwanda has recovered and worked to improve so much in the last 17 years, yet many westerners don’t understand and still hear the word Rwanda and get worried and ask “is that safe?” I’ve been very interested lately in traveling to the Congo, which is probably considered the most dangerous country in the world right now. It is funny that many people- and I’m talking smart, educated (even ivy league educated people) don’t blink an eye when I say I want to go to the Congo, but when I mention a trip to Rwanda they gasp in fright as images of machetes and guns flash through their minds. That is because we are so uneducated about the continent of Africa. Part of that is because Africa is constantly changing; borders change, armies rise and fall, some countries like Rwanda, which was extremely dangerous is now very safe whereas other countries have become very unstable like the Congo because conflict moves. There are so many problems in our world and I’m not saying that every person should be educated on every issue, because really that’s impossible. However, I do think we should all learn a little more about places that affect us so we can make educated everyday decisions like not buying blood diamonds and hey ever wonder where the coltan comes from in your cell phone or laptop? Yup it’s from the Congo and it’s one of the main reasons the country is overrun by militias and violence so recycle your electronics please!

My two weeks in Rwanda were particularly amazing because I got to see both the amazing people of Rwanda while visiting UNICEF sites and got to see the incredible wildlife living in the national parks. I’ll start by sharing with you some of my favorite sites I visited with UNICEF and then in the coming weeks I’ll share with you my experiences in the national parks in both Rwanda and its neighbor Uganda. The work UNICEF is doing in Rwanda (and all over the world) is incredible and was amazing to see firsthand. Many people of my generation know UNICEF through trick or treat for UNICEF or through the sappy Alyssa Milano commercials always on TV (sorry UNICEF, but they are incredibly sappy)! However, beyond that not many people- especially young adults- don’t know much about UNICEF. Like how in the last two decades UNICEF has cut down the number of children under age five that die every day of preventable causes by one-third, or that Charity Navigator, America’s premier independent charity evaluator gave the U.S. Fund for UNICEF its highest rating for fiscal responsibility, meaning that your donations are used well and not lost in the bureaucratic overhead of large organizations, an honor only 3% of charities received last year. Most people don’t know that UNICEF gives out more vaccinations and malaria nets then any other charity in the world and is able to get them cheaper than other charities because they buy in such large quantities so your money goes farther. How about the best statistic of all- UNICEF has saved more children’s lives than any other charity in the world. So if you didn’t know much about them, that’s okay a lot of people don’t, but now that you’re reading this maybe it’s time to learn a little more. You can start by checking back on Sunday for my first post about the street children of Rwanda and the amazing work UNICEF is doing to help them stay off the streets.
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