Voluntourism

 

Voluntourism Trip 2019: Experiencing the Beauty of Rwanda while Volunteering

 

 

This January, the International Program brought a great group of individuals to Rwanda. They spent 12 days visiting an exquisite country full of historical landmarks and countrysides. Travelers visited Kigali, Akagera, Muhanga, Nyungwe Forest National Park, Lake Kivu and Rubavu Gisenyi. As exciting as it was to tour the country, this trip was more than just tourism – it was an incredible opportunity to volunteer with local non-profits and their respective communities. Take a look at a journal entry written by one of the participants: 

 

 

 

“Last week I returned from an amazing two-week trip to Rwanda. The trip was arranged by US Together’s International Program. With the recent drastic cuts in refugees being permitted to come to the U.S, US Together has been looking for ways to assist vulnerable populations in the host countries where they are staying while the United Nations decides how best to support these families.  One program instituted was “voluntourism:” an opportunity for individuals to tour host countries while volunteering with local non-profits and refugee camps.

 

Because one of US Together’s close supporters is from Rwanda, the focus of the International Program for the past year has been on building partnerships between the city of Columbus and non-profit organizations already operating in Rwanda. Last year, several delegations from Rwanda came to Columbus to learn from non-profit groups about the structure of their organizations, fund-raising strategies, and how they connect to government and non-governmental agencies to network and increase their capacity.  The main purpose of the trip to Rwanda was to observe these organizations and discover additional ways to support their work. 

 

 

Last summer I hosted a member from one of our Rwanda delegations, and I decided to join this trip to see the country she loved.  I have been involved with US Together for many years through my experience as an ESL teacher of the refugee children they sponsor, and I wanted the opportunity to visit a refugee camp to see for myself the conditions in which they are forced to live.  Since my retirement from teaching, I have focused my career on teacher preparation.  I am extremely diligent in ensuring our teachers have the knowledge and skills to best meet the needs of our students, and in order to support and prepare teachers I need up-to-date and accurate information on the backgrounds and the academic, social, and emotional needs of our students.

 

Our trip was planned by two of the organizations in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.  Upon our arrival, they arranged for us to visit each part of the country and experience for ourselves life in Rwanda.  Like most Americans, I knew little about Rwanda outside of the 1994 genocide, so this experience was very eye-opening.  We visited two beautiful national parks, Akagera and Ngungwe. Ngungwe was stunning with its rain forests, canopy walk, and chimpanzee trek.  The country has obviously spent millions to set aside these huge parks for conservation and for tourism.  Poaching has decreased dramatically and the infrastructure of roads, hotels, and park services was first rate.  However, getting to these locations allowed us to see how the majority of the people in rural Rwanda still live:  as subsistence farmers in two room homes with dirt floors, most without transportation except for walking and the occasional use of the ever-present motorcycle taxis.

 

Everywhere we went, we spoke with local residents.  At the start of almost every conversation, the 1994 genocide was mentioned.  Everyone we met had lost family in the horrific massacre that left approximately one million people dead.  Yet, no one was focused on revenge or retaliation (at least, they did not voice this to us).  Each province had a Genocide Memorial, and the National Memorial in Kigali was the final resting place of 250,000 victims.  The message we heard on a daily basis was “we will not forget, but we will heal and rebuild.”  Our group was so impressed with the resiliency and strength of the people it was hard not to contrast their regrowth with the political divisions of the United States. 

 

Our final three days were spent visiting three non-profit organizations interested in partnering with US Together.  One is a group created by women that supplies micro-loans to female entrepreneurs interested in jump-starting their own businesses. A second group works with villages to establish agricultural cooperatives to increase their crop production and livestock health. The third organization takes children off the streets of Kigali and provides them with temporary housing and education while working with their families to reinstate the children back into their homes.  Many of these children had run away from problems typically associated with extreme poverty:  overcrowded homes, inability to attend school, forced labor, and broken families.  This third organization provided an abundance of resources with an extremely limited budget.

 

On our final day in Kigali, we had the privilege of meeting with a number of urban refugees from neighboring Burundi, who had fled a government that was targeting young males who were often the most vocal in their dissent of the current government.  These refugees explained that they had been forced to leave the relative safely of the refugee camp on the southern border because government operatives often infiltrated the camp looking for escaped dissenters.  They requested that we refrain from taking pictures for safety purposes.  The danger was so intense we were not permitted to visit the camp ourselves.  The refugees described their lives in Kigali.  Most of them were unable to find good jobs because of their lack of English skills (the language of business in Rwanda). Additionally, they faced difficulties finding affordable housing and transportation. Each person we interviewed expressed their desire to return home if the situation improved.  We discussed at the end of the meeting that these are the same concerns of the refugees who have been resettled into the US. 

 

I left the meeting and the country wondering if there was anything I could do.  Upon my arrival home, I decided to apply the knowledge I gained from this trip to my trainings. I saw a great need for short term teacher-training and school support opportunities that I will definitely encourage as I network with local universities and organizations.  I was able to visit two secondary schools as well as the program for street children and all three asked for people to come and work on the English skills of the children, because this would provide greater employment opportunities for them in the future.  One of the schools I visited was supported by US donations and it was obvious what a strong impact this had on the quality of books, computers, and infrastructure of the school.  Volunteers from France were working with the street children on technology skills and reading development.  Just one person in each school would make such a difference.  Exchanges of social workers and health care professionals would help to lift the families out of poverty and provide for basic needs.  I left Rwanda feeling ashamed that I have so much and that I do so little to share with my fellow human beings around the world.  I hope that this trip truly leaves me with a bigger heart and the wisdom to use my blessings to make this world a better place.”

 

 

 

Rwand pic 3

rwanda pic 3

Rwanda pic 1