Smile: Worthwhile – Volunteering in Rwanda

by Mike Brand

Rwanda is covered by a lush green landscape with rolling hills and red earth. In Kigali, the capital, there are large modern buildings, bumper-to bumper traffic, Internet cafés, and electronics stores. But just a few miles outside the city are mudbrick homes, without electricity or running water. The conflicting smells of tropical flowers and burning trash fill the air. It’s possible to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables at the market for less than $1, but a box of Frosted Flakes costs $20.

After an initial experience in Rwanda volunteering for Never Again Rwanda – teaching Rwandan youth how to use human rights to combat genocide ideology – I joined the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish Service Corps, a one-year version of the Peace Corps for Jews. Most placements are in Jewish communities around the world. But the JDC has a nonsectarian project, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, which was created to help address the orphan problem that has been an issue since the 1994 genocide, when approximately 800,000 Rwandans were killed.

Alongside the devastation of the general population, the genocide left many children without parents. According to UNICEF’s 2008 demographic report, 53 percent of Rwanda’s population is 18 or younger; almost a quarter are orphans. The overwhelming number of orphans presents a staggering challenge that has notbeen substantially addressed since the genocide. And the challenge is growing; children are still losing parents to secondary effects of the genocide: HIV/AIDS, occasional murders and suicide, and abandonment.

Agahozo, which in Kinyarwanda means “a place where tears are dried,” is a youth village which seeks to restore the rhythm of life for each child living there. This is the place nine other volunteers and I will call home for a year.

My previous experience in Rwanda and my penchant for computers landed me the job of teaching ICT (basic to intermediate computer skills) to 125 of the 250 students at Liquidnet Family High School (located at Agahozo-Shalom). Additionally, I serve as the village’s IT coordinator and mentor to a family of 16 boys.

Teaching computers at the school presents some challenges. Though classes are taught in English, most of the kids had never used English before arriving at Agahozo-Shalom in December 2009. Many of them had never seen a computer, yet the national curriculum requires they learn Microsoft Word and Excel. Their unfamiliarity with computers makes even the most routine task, such as double-clicking, a challenge for some. Others, however, could navigate Facebook, Gmail, and music sites with ease, but couldn’t change the font size in Word.

Of course, the kids do more than just study computers. Through sports, art, and music classes, the children come to life in stark contrast to their traumatic pasts. It’s hard to fathom how the kid smiling ear-to-ear, laughing and having fun, is the same kid who told you the horrible story of his or her life. It is evidence of their resolve and of the effectiveness of the efforts of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.

While working with orphans of the Rwandan genocide has been rewarding, volunteering abroad has been tough. You leave life at home to move to a foreign country where the people speak a different language, you stick out everywhere you go, and everyday conveniences such as running water and electricity are a luxury. Daily challenges include bucket-bathing with cold water, cooking with a hot plate on the living room floor, and fending off the onslaught of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. But when you see a child smile, hear a song sung, watch a traditional dance, or see students’ faces light up after successfully completing a task on the computer, it all becomes clearly worthwhile. That’s why I decided to volunteer abroad: It’s the best job I’ve ever had.

Mike Brand graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2007, majoring in history and political science with a minor in human rights. After his fellowship in Rwanda ends in December 2010, Mike plans to create a nonprofit non-governmental organization focused on promoting human rights education and activism around the world.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Heroes issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.

image: aerial view of Agahozo-Shalom; courtesy Mike Brand