“This truly may have been my greatest day ever.”
I have had more than my share of great days and events in my life—really more than my fair share. But today, November 18, 2015 is probably my best ever. Though I cannot fully capture the beauty, energy, and raw emotion of all I have seen, I will nevertheless try, recognizing that the full weight of the experience cannot possibly be understood.
After a fun group breakfast, we left for the Bushoka Health Center. When we first toured Bushoka in 2011, we were shocked by many things, most notably the maternity facility. Babies were delivered in a 10′ x 10′ room made up of two tables. The room had no electricity, no running water, no floor drain, and there were no trained medical staff. Conditions were absolutely heartbreaking, and many have been hoping to bring improvement to the situation ever since.
That same year we also toured the Nutrition Center in the area where Our Response had donated $40,000 designated for building an addition to the center, as well as for nutrition training throughout the community. We were thrilled to be part of this amazing project, but it was difficult coming face to face with the needs.
We then returned in 2013, once again visiting Bushoka. While some additional rooms had been added to the clinic, we found the maternity area unchanged. The same ill-equipped room was still in use for all deliveries.
At that time, our hearts were also torn out by meeting a little girl, roughly one year old, who weighed only about 12 pounds. As we held our collective breath and fought through tears, we encouraged the staff to get her the help she needed at whatever the cost. The staff were already aware of the situation and planning an intervention, but they let us know that they would take appropriate steps and stay in communication with us.
Enter our 2015 trip to Bushoka today. The entire tour was amazing: we viewed increased facilities, an upgraded lab area, improved waiting areas, and private consultation rooms. We also met with the heroic Community Care Workers. But nothing had prepared me for what was next.
As we walked up a hill toward a piece of land previously used for crops, we spied a brand new beautiful building with the word “Maternite” painted on it. I almost audibly screamed in shock, and asked our Rwandan leader if we were looking at an entire building for maternity patients. When he said, “Yes,” I burst into tears. I had no idea this was coming. I think almost every day of the thousands of women who have given birth in that old room and how many complications have resulted. The prior four years of wishing we could do something came flooding in as I realized much of this new development had been funded by sponsorship dollars—money raised from kids sponsored in Kivuruga, over 700 sponsorships by people primarily living in East Central Minnesota. The emotional impact was unexpected and staggering. Never in my life had such a positive surprise rocked my world. As I toured this lovely building made up of a reception area, waiting area, delivery area with privacy screens, a separate post-delivery area—as well as electricity and running water—I was overcome with excitement.
After composing myself and seeing a few other parts of the center, we went to the nutrition area. This is where meals are served to undernourished children and where mothers are educated about nutrition and many other things. This building is also where, in 2013, we encountered the little undernourished girl. As we first started hearing from the staff, I started getting some curious looks from the Rwandan staff. They were speaking in Kinyarwandan while looking at me. I was confused. Our guide, Jimmy, then said, “Do you know why we are talking about you? Do you know that malnourished girl you saw in 2013? Well, she is here.”
I didn’t even know what to do; I was literally speechless. I went over to her, knowing that this Nutrition Center (funded in part by Our Response) had literally saved her life.
We watched as they measured and weighed her.
While she is still “stunted”, meaning her height is extremely low relative to average, her weight is now normal for her height. One of the measurements they take is around her bicep on her arm. In 2013, the tool measured her bicep at 8.5 and now it was measured at 14.0 For perspective, I used that tool to measure my thumb at 8.5; that’s how big her arms were two years ago (I don’t have big man thumbs).
We went on to learn about the feeding of the children who were currently coming to the center. As always, we participated in serving the food. We were getting some great information and humbled by the opportunity to serve, but my mind was still paralyzed by the maternity ward and that little girl.
So what should we do next? Well how about go and reconnect with the most heroic person I have ever met: Florence, leader of the AIDS Caregivers.
Over the years we have provided caregivers with raincoats and medical supplies. On our last trip Florence mentioned a need for rain boots. Thanks to generous donations by New Hope Community Church and others, we were able to bring boots to Florence and her team. But when we first caught sight of each other, Florence and I ran to embrace and I felt like I was hugging her our entire time there. This wonderful woman has such a sweet spirit about her.
After some conversation and learning about their work, Florence presented us with a beautiful handmade basket with the words “World Vision” and “CCC” (for Community Caregivers Cooperative) woven into it. Such an amazing personal and special gift! We in turn were able to give her, along with the rain boots, a picture of the 2013 trip team to remember us by. As expected, the group broke out in song and dance. Jimmy had a tough time settling them down to be able to continue.
We also found out that these volunteers stain fabric to be used for dresses and other clothing. The money earned is used to help care for those with HIV and AIDS. For example, for their patient today they were using some of that money to help construct a vegetable garden. Previously the caregivers helped her and her five children build a home, the one that we were visiting. When we asked if we could purchase fabric, we were of course given the opportunity. Collectively we bought eight large pieces of fabric totaling 56,000 Rwandan francs (about $80 USD). I am bringing three of these pieces of cloth back with me that I’m excited to share with the sewers I know! I will want something made from them that will be a constant reminder of Florence, the caregivers, and Kivuruga.
We then had an opportunity to have lunch with the Interfaith Church Committee, a group of pastors from Christian and Muslim churches that are working together in intentional unity to bring about change to their community. Over the years these individuals have inspired much of what I am trying to do with Our Response in East Central Minnesota. Helping churches, businesses, schools, and individuals understand the power of unity, the power of putting aside certain differences to accomplish a higher purpose. Their wisdom and insights have informed, in many ways, who I am. And today was a confirmation of the many conversations we have had with them in the past. These leaders continue to push forward in unity; they continue to focus on the transformation of their community and the care of their children.
After lunch, we traveled to the Anglican Church (yes, former trip team members, the same one) where we were greeted with the electric sound of a hundred or more children singing at the top of their voices and dancing like crazy. The echoes in the church created a deafening sound as we entered the church and enjoyed their song and dance. We also sat in on a little bit of a Sunday School lesson before heading outside to play with the kids.
We had brought many of the balls, pumps and carrying nets donated by Immanuel Church in Forest Lake, and, boy, did the kids explode at that. We put about 15 of them out there to play with and it was utter chaos for about 30 minutes, with us muzungu—white people—right in the middle of it. The smiles and laughter coming from the muzungu and the Rwandans was overwhelming at times. Clearly, I sweated through both shirts, but I’m guessing not one person cared. We eventually were each able to trade one of our soccer balls for one that they had made, an exchange I continue to treasure with every trip.
Finally, I thought this emotional day would come to an end! But no, we stopped at a small shop that World Vision has helped establish for people who can sew and tailor clothing as their business. They have also apprenticed 10 young ladies who have gone on to work at another shop, and are currently apprenticing two more. While we were sweating (more sweating) in this small shop, it was so great to see their smiles and pride in their work. This sort of economic development is truly inspiring because of the benefits on so many levels. We had a chance here, too, to buy printed fabrics or finished items (dresses, etc). Several of us made purchases. I picked up more fabric for people back home. I think the cloth is beautiful; we will see what others think!
Finally we wrapped up our time in Kivuruga and drove back to Musanze, taking in once again the beauty of this place and people. After a short unwind, we took a brief walk to a restaurant where we ate outside and had some wonderful pizza (taste of home!). Jimmy said the pizzas were personal pizzas, showing us a circle 6-8″ in diameter. Well, Jimmy was a bit wrong as they brought out each of our large pizzas. It was a ton of food, but we did the best we could. We discussed today, tomorrow, and enjoyed a lot of laughs. Tomorrow is our last day in Kivuruga, and it tears me apart. We will never have this particular team together again. We may never spend time again with Jimmy. I think about these experiences that we shared that we will never share with another group.
Sometimes you wonder if it’s all worth it. The thousands of hours, the amount of money, the late nights, the time away and use of vacation time, listening to those who oppose what we do, wondering if we really are making a difference. These trips, and specifically today, answer every single one of these questions. This truly may have been my greatest day ever.
Thank you to all those who have believed in what we are doing through your financial support, child sponsorship, prayers, encouragement, kind words, participating in events, donating balls or rain boots, sewing dresses, volunteering at events, etc, etc, etc. I wish I could have had you all in my pocket today as we saw the impact of your support and encouragement.
A special thank you to every one of you who don’t necessarily carry the same views regarding religion, political affiliation, or reaction to world events, but you have decided to look past those differences to be part of a unified “response.” This level of unity is heroic and inspiring. It’s easy to be on the side of those you agree with; it’s harder to join forces with someone you disagree with for the sake of a higher purpose. This heroism describes many of the thousands of people who have been part of Our Response.