Saturday, December 10, 2011

Human Rights Day

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
- Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today, December 10th, 2011, is Human Rights Day.

While we celebrate that sixty-three years ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly, I can't help but think about how the rights that are guaranteed in the Declaration have yet to reach millions of marginalized people around the world. 

I don't like to write much about politics and I don't really know what the defining qualities of a human rights"activist" are supposed to be, but since technology has given the gift of letting everyone have a voice I want to take the opportunity to have mine heard on the topic of human rights and how it relates to my work at ICAP. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, the goal of my project is to provide comprehensive services to survivors of gender-based violence. Acts of gender-based violence include: spousal battery; sexual abuse; dowry-related violence; rape (including marital rape); female genital mutilation/cutting; non-spousal violence; sexual violence related to exploitation; sexual harassment and intimidation; trafficking in women; and forced prostitution. I think everyone would agree that these acts are a clear violation of human rights. Therefore, for once, I'm not going to talk about gender-based violence as a violation of human rights. It is a given.

Instead, I'm going to discuss my other project - providing healthcare services to men who are having sex with men (MSM). Our MSM program is something that the ICAP-New York office is very proud of. There are several challenges in implementing a program like this in East Africa so the development of the program is most definitely an accomplishment.The attitude towards this program in Rwanda is another story. In an effort to be culturally sensitive of people's religious beliefs, the MSM program is not about social change but instead about doling out health care services for an at-risk population. "We are not gay activists, we are not promoting homosexuality" - these are the words often used when discussing the program with others in Rwanda in an effort to garner support. 

But how can we discuss the health care needs of the LGBT community without recognizing that they have rights as human beings? This division between MSM programs and the LGBT movement seems detrimental to progress since it ignores the big picture. The big picture means recognizing the rights of all people and how these intrinsic rights guarantee that they have equal access not only to health care but also equality in all spheres of life. Ensuring that gay men have access to HIV testing and anti-retroviral treatment will make no difference if they later are beaten because of their sexual orientation or ostracized by their family and friends. Rwanda has shown that it can implement important programs and push social changes if it chooses to prioritize such issues. Despite this fact, I'm not expecting anything to change in Rwanda in the near future. The U.S. has also been far from perfect about leading the way for equal rights when it comes to the LGBT community. However, on Human Rights Day I think it needs to be said that human rights belong equally to each of us and bind us together as a community regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation.

In case anyone is interested, video of Secretary Clinton's speech on LGBT rights. She mentions many of the same points (but more eloquently)...

Monday, December 5, 2011

Thanksgiving - Rwanda style

It can really suck not being home for the holidays when family and friends are all together eating delicious, traditional Thanksgiving food. Luckily, my friends here in Rwanda were going through the same thing so it only made sense to band together and prepare a traditional (or as traditional as we could make it) Thanksgiving meal! 

The cooking process was arduous but completely worth the effort. My good friends Sierra, Tristen, Georgina, Megan (my roommate) and I worked collaboratively to make all the potato dishes. We also helped Megan with her delicious dish of carrots and beets. The day before Thanksgiving we headed to the market to pick up potatoes and other ingredients. We were hoping to make a tasty sweet potato dish but it didn't quite work out how we hoped - we were only able to find white sweet potatoes as opposed to orange ones and unfortunately none of us were certain how to cook the white sweet potatoes. In the end we bought a large bag of carrots and beets along with 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of potatoes!!! Looking back, it made absolutely no sense to buy so many potatoes but we figured better to have too many than too few since we were cooking for about 40 people. 

By the end of the night, my back was killing me from washing, peeling, boiling, and mashing so many potatoes. We had whipped potatoes, garlic mashed potatoes, and spicy baked potatoes! The whole process made me realize what I'm thankful for this year - having family, friends, and a boyfriend who supported and encouraged me to work in Rwanda (even though I know they would prefer that I stop leaving the country all the time) and making friends in Rwanda who have been like family.

With less than 2 weeks left to go before I'm home, I'm equally excited to be going back home and deeply sad to be leaving the incredible friends I've made here. It's hard to find people who will sit with you and cook 55 pounds of potatoes. =)

Me and Sierra working hard to get those potatoes ready

A Thanksgiving Feast!
So full after dinner...

Friday, November 25, 2011

Team Spirit

Wedding season continues! In one weekend I attended two weddings of two colleagues at ICAP. One of my colleagues is part of the same Adherence and Linkages Team as me, and as a member of the team we all decided it would be fun to dress up in matching outfits when we presented our team gift. So as some of you may have seen on facebook, I got the opportunity to wear a traditional Rwandan outfit for the wedding! It was a lot of fun and I think everyone really appreciated the effort that was put in by the whole team for the wedding. 

The bride and groom with all of the men of ICAP.

Eugenie, Alice, Liberata, me, Odette, Bernadette, and Didine - Adherence and Linkages Team women.
The work I do can flucuate between being busy, boring, depressing, frustrating, and exciting but the one thing that has been consistent is how supportive and collaborative the Adherence and Linkages Team has been while I've been working with ICAP =)

Gender-based Violence Awareness Week

This post is definitely VERY delayed but I wanted to share a little bit about an event I helped to plan in October - Gender-based Violence Awareness Week. I was really excited to be a part of the awareness week, which was in the Western province of Rwanda. The week started on Tuesday, October 11, 2011 with an official launch at the district football (soccer) stadium.

The goal of the launch and the subsequent sector-level GBV sensitization campaigns was to strengthen the delivery of comprehensive services, such as HIV testing and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), to victims of sexual violence by creating awareness in the community about GBV and the newly initiated Gisenyi One Stop Center.  The Mayor of the District, the CDC Country Director, the Inspector General of the Police, and the Governor of the Western Province were all there and spoke on the importance of addressing gender-based violence in Rwanda. The ICAP Country Director also addressed the crowd on the importance of timely arrival to health facilities, the One Stop Center services at Gisenyi District Hospital, and ICAP’s commitment to combating gender-based violence.  The guest of honor was the Minister of Health and she spoke on the about Rwanda’s “zero-tolerance” policy for gender-based violence.

The launch also included musicians, traditional dancers, skits, and a soccer match so there was a lot going on and a lot to plan for the event! It ended up being a little too hot, but overall a very successful day. After the launch I joined the regional team in traveling to different sectors in the District and educating community members on GBV and the importance of referring patients immediately to the health care facilities.

Here are some highlights from the launch and the sector awareness week activities:

Me, Eugenie and Chantal in our official shirts and mishananas.

Members of the community, the police, and moto drivers marched from town to the stadium to promote the launch.

Kitoko, a Rwandan pop star, performing during the launch.

Skit on GBV performed put on by local schools.

The Minister of Health addressing the crowd.
Soccer game between teams from the DRC and Rwanda. This was a great way of getting people from the Congo and Rwanda to both attend the launch.
Official t-shirts being distributed to community members - it says “Help the SGBV survivor to arrive quickly to the health facility, services are free.”

Nurse at One Stop Center with an eight year old survivor of sexual abuse.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Gorillas are AMAZING

It was never my dream to one day go gorilla trekking but as it turns out it really should have been. Visiting the mountain gorillas has been the highlight of my trip to Rwanda so far! It's not surprising that the gorillas are the number one tourist attraction for Rwanda and they continue to attract tourists even though the permits are $500/person for one day! When I heard the price I was skeptical if was worth the cost but it definitely was worth every penny.

In order to reach the gorillas you have to travel to Volcanoes National Park in the north west region of Rwanda. Hiking to get to the gorillas can take anywhere from 1 to 4 hours depending which family of gorillas you want to see - there are around 7 families open for tourists to track. The other families of gorillas are for research purposes only and Rwanda has about 250 endangered mountain gorillas living in the national park (the others are in Uganda and the DR Congo). We ended up tracking the Umubano group ("friendship" in Kinyarwanda).

We got lucky and only hiked for about 2 hours since the rain from the night before meant that all the gorillas moved down the mountain. Here are some pictures from the hike and a "family portrait" of the gorillas we tracked.

Before you begin your hike, trackers brief you on the guidelines. Here is the list of the Rwanda Tourism Board guidelines you're supposed to follow:
  • To minimize possible transmission of human diseases, visitors are asked to maintain a distance of 7m (about 22 feet) from the gorillas. (We definitely were not this far away)
  • If you are sick with a cold, flu or other contagious illness, please do not visit the gorillas.
  • Viewing time is limited to one hour.
  • Maximum 8 visitors per group.
  • Spitting in the park is strictly prohibited.
  • Should you need to cough, cover your mouth and turn away from the gorillas.
  • When with the gorillas, keep your voice low.
  • Try not to make rapid movements that may frighten the gorillas.
  • If a gorilla should charge or vocalize at you, do not be alarmed, stand still, look away from the gorilla and follow your guide’s directions.
  • Do not litter.
You can tell they are pretty strict about seeing the gorillas! When we reached them I was truly amazed by how close we were allowed to get. I was also surprised that the gorillas were not bothered at all by our presence and didn't seem to care that we were taking a zillion pictures of them. They simply went about their day - mostly cleaning each other, eating, and caring for the young. The most amazing thing was that their mannerisms are just like ours - you can clearly see the similarities between human and gorilla. You could tell they have personalities and relationships with one another by their interactions. Here are some of my favorite pictures from the trip -

Momma and baby

Manu and I in front of the alpha male silver back gorilla

Taking pictures while he has his lunch (gorillas are vegetarians)

Cute little baby gorilla

The family

My favorite little kid gorilla

The alpha male silver back - he clearly looks like a leader.
In case these pictures don't capture the awesomeness of the gorillas, here is a short video I took! In the video you can see my favorite "kid" gorilla. He was very interested in the tourists and came close to us every few minutes before the tracker would scare him away. Five minutes later, he would forget the tracker scared him away and try to come close to us again. It was very cute.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Africa is not a country - my trip to Uganda

About two months ago I left Rwanda to visit home for about a week so that I could attend a friend's wedding. It was great being back - everyone I met was excited and curious to learn about what I was doing in Africa. They asked me what I thought about Africa and what it was like. And I happily answered the best I could.

But I don't just live in Africa, I live in Rwanda. And Rwanda is not Africa. I don't usually correct people when they say Africa because I assume they might not remember what country I'm actually living in. Or they might just find it easier to say Africa. I'm sure there are some people who don't realize Africa is composed of many countries (like my Nani who definitely thought Africa was a country, but she's also old so I'll give her a break). For the record, Africa is NOT a country. In fact Africa is made up of VERY different countries. 

Rwanda was my first introduction to Africa and until recently I had never left Rwanda, but a few weeks ago Manu came to visit me and we decided to visit Uganda. My trip to Uganda prompted me to write this post because Uganda is SO incredibly different from Rwanda. Even though it's only a 1 hour plane ride (or 9 hour bus ride) away, Kampala is livelier, busier, dirtier, and much bigger than Kigali! The atmosphere in Kampala reminded me of New Delhi a lot more than Kigali.

So much trash! Not something you would see in Kigali.

Crazy and dangerous traffic! I loved the bustle of Kampala as opposed to the slightly boring atmosphere of Kigali.

We arrived in Kampala very late Wednesday night and only made it out to dinner. The next morning we left early to go white water rafting a few hours outside of Kampala (in Jinja) on the Nile. There were definitely moments after falling out of the raft where I panicked but the life vest would always pull me right back up. Since I'm not a very good swimmer it was reassuring to know that there were also canoes and rafts nearby with people to pull me out of the water if I needed it. What was really scary was the bungee jumping! Having everything upside down as you're falling 145 feet toward the Nile is the strangest sensation. It was an unforgettable experience =)

We flipped over almost every time we hit a rapid until we realized our uneven weight distribution was causing it.

Before the jump - we decided to go together!

Holding on tight - there was nothing strapping us to each other so we had to make sure not to let go.

The next day we explored Kampala. There are clearly a lot of South Asians in Kampala because as we wandered around we found a mosque, temple, gurdwara, and Jain temple all in close proximity. We navigated the market (nothing too exciting there, they sell basically all the same things in Kigali) and went out to dinner in an upbeat part of town (thanks for the food recommendation Nishant!). We headed back to Kigali later that evening - the trip was definitely too short!

Inside of Gadhafi National Mosque - think what you will about the guy, he built one gorgeous mosque.

I was very excited to see a Gurdwara!

Uganda showed me a very different side to Africa and if I'm lucky, before heading home I would love to see another country that this continent has to offer!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mount Kabuye

At 2700 meters, or 8,800 feet high Mount Kabuye is the 10th highest mountain in Rwanda. That doesn't sound particularly impressive but as I mentioned I don't do much physical activity so hiking up this mountain was actually pretty exhausting.

We left Kigali at 7am to take the bus to Gakenke, a District in the northern province of Rwanda about 1 hour away. It took roughly 3 hours to hike to the summit of the mountain and about the same on the way down. The way up was definitely the worst for me and I stopped a lot to rest. But I think the saddest part was the fact that we were escorted by a gaggle of children who zipped up and down the mountain with so much ease that it would have been demoralizing for anyone who doesn't hike regularly. A few of the kids did the entire hike with no shoes and one of the kids was actually pretty chubby and still outpaced me!

But to be fair, the mountain is where these children's live and hiking is one of the few things to do in the area so it's no surprise they were experts. The way down also ended up being much more treacherous than I imagined - the hill was very steep which made it challenging but also more fun! Because of the rain there was a lot of sliding down the mountain. Even though I felt like I wanted to collapse for part of the hike, the amazing view and fresh air was incredible and refreshing =) But I think I'll probably wait awhile before going hiking again.

Beginning our trek to the top with an entourage of children accompanying us
The whole group (minus Nathan) resting for a few minutes on our way to the top (picture courtesy of Georgina)
We made it! Lunch with Megan and Sierra at the top of Mt. Kabuye (picture courtesy of Georgina)

One of the adorable kids accompanying us to the top

Me, Georgina, and our chubby tour guide

Georgina, me, Charlotte, and Megan getting ready to head back down the mountain

The incredible view

About Me

SGBV Intern at the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs (ICAP) in Kigali, Rwanda