Kigali, Rwanda, is a city with no street signs. There are no addresses, no way to pinpoint a place. The only way to explain a location is by describing it in relation to something else. The result is that, in order to find your way around, you must already know where you are going.
Other than street signs, Kigali has everything. It is not developing so much as developed. The city center had a brand new movie theater and a beautiful department store. There was even a bowling alley, tucked away down one of those unmarked roads. My first field visit thus came as a bit of a shock. Up to that point, I had thought I was tough because I had grown accustomed to my mosquito net and the occasional bucket shower. I thought I was starting to figure this whole Rwanda thing out. I thought wrong.
I could barely even handle the ride out to the field visit. The other interns and I squished into the backseat of a truck. Nepo, the driver, sped expertly down the winding roads. We slid and bounced in the backseat.
Rwanda is a beautiful country. It is green, lush, and hilly—so very hilly. Along the roads weaving through the hills, people walk. They walk for miles and often carry hundreds of pounds of timber, reeds, food or even mattresses along with them. Cyclists battle the hills while laden with more baggage than I would store in an SUV. I was already beginning to see that I did not know the meaning of the word tough.
Then came the field visit. We drove through a village where people in faded clothes lived in mud huts along the side of a dusty road. It felt like a movie set. I could not fathom that this was how so many people— so many children!— lived. The children sat at the side of the road. They chased the truck as we passed, and then went back to their places, watching the road again. I have no way of understanding what it means to be one of those children, just watching the road.
We reached a nursery where children sang us songs in both English and Kinyarwanda. We went to visit farmers who had benefited from the CWS Giving Hope program. We saw co-operatives that had been formed by Giving Hope to teach young people skills like sewing, card-making and hair styling. We saw places where the intense poverty had been beaten back, and it gave me hope.
The people out in the rural areas of Rwanda are tough. They are survivors. Give them hope, the mission statement of the project read, and they’ll do the rest. Again and again, I saw this to be true. I met the first female carpenter in Rwanda, a woman named Odette, who was training other girls in her craft. I met a young man who had pulled his entire family from poverty, and was now teaching other men to weld. I met a fourteen-year-old boy who was supporting two young children. I met survivors.
To navigate Rwanda, you have to already know where you are going. The Giving Hope program works so well because it puts the power in the hands of the people who know the country. It gives people control and power over their own lives. I was inspired to see how, with a little bit of help, these people could change their own lives.
Lisa Carlson is a senior at the University of Notre Dame, where she is studying anthropology and film. She is from Novi, Michigan, and this was her first time traveling to Rwanda.