My great-aunt Concepcion helped raise me from 8 years old and onward. She introduced me to music, theatre, film, and travel. She took great pride in her independence. She worked hard and played even more. She also traveled quite a bit. When she would return she would share booklets and trinkets she picked up in her travels. I learned about the world through her eyes. I was undocumented then and I never imagined it would be available to me beyond her tales.
In 2005 she past unexpectedly. At her wake my uncle Arnold made a video montage of all her travels in alphabetical order! It was so inspiring. I’ve since become documented and have been able to travel back to the Philippines, to England, and most recently to Cuba! In a couple of weeks I will be in Rwanda!
I hope to make my aunt proud.
June 24, 2017
Here’s me in Cuba!
June 24, 2017
Preparing for Rwanda, 14 days to departure!
- July 8, 2017
Rwanda-Bound with my thesis partner!
You can also follow Projectrwanda.wordpress.com
July 8, 2017
Before leaving NYC I wondered if I’d see or encounter any Filipinos. I had my doubts. However, I was proven wrong! During a change of planes in Entebb, Uganda, I met a Filipino named Danny. He works in a university in Uganda, teaching aqua-culture. He said, “they call me the fish guy.” We spoke Tagalog for at least 10 minutes. It brought my heart such joy and comfort. There is something cathartic when one’s body feels at home while traveling.
Sunday, July 9, 2017
We had the morning to ourselves to get settled in. A few of us took an hour’s stroll around. Rwanda, or at the very least Kigali, is very clean. Although it is quite dusty from red clay residue, I have yet to see any trash on the street. Nor are there any trash bins.
In the early afternoon we took a short bus ride to a memorial where 10 Belgium soldiers were assassinated. To give a brief context, in 1994 a genocide occurred in Rwanda. The 100 days of mass killings resulted in the genocide of 1 million people, Tutsi people and moderate Hutus, by extremist who believed Hutus were superior. On the first day of the genocide 8,000 people alone were massacred in their homes and on the streets. The Belgium soldier’s memorial we visited was the site where there were tortured and assassinated for protecting the then Prime Minister, Madame Uwilingiyimana.
The memorial focused on genocide as a whole, not just the Rwandan genocide. There was a large painting commemorating the Holocaust, the genocide in Cambodia and the genocide in Rwanda. The building has been kept as it was in 1994, with all the bullet holes and grenade damage. I wanted to touch them, but I didn’t out of a feeling of respect. I also did not take photos. This has to do with not yet having reconciled my feelings around people who photograph the World Trade Center site. I have mixed feelings about spaces of death. When I see people at home take pictures of the World Trade Center site I have often thought, “Stop! This is graveyard.” Photographing makes me feel as though it’s an attraction. On the other hand I have been informed that Rwandans have kept these memorials in hopes that their story will be told and shared in order to prevent it in the future. So do I post it on Instagram and Facebook and explain?
This is a photo from the Internet:
After the memorial we walked to a mall in the city center. There weren’t many people since it was a Sunday. After the mall we walked quite a bit to the bus. On the way a young boy, 10-11 years old, attached himself to our group and persistently asked each of us for money and/or food. We had been warned previously by our hosts not to give out money. I am sad to say that my immediate reaction to this boy was to shut my heart. How do we learn to become desensitized?
Please pardon any spelling or grammar errors. It’s late and I am quite exhausted.
Monday, July 10, 2017
We left the hotel at 7:30am for our 25 minute walk to the University of Rwanda-College of Education, where would be working with Rwandan students for the next two weeks. The objective is for the cohort of graduate students I am part of to work with the Rwandan students on how drama can be used as a tool for teaching and learning.
As we walked briskly through Monday morning rush hour traffic I again noticed the cleanliness of the streets. Instead of trash, there are random stacks of gray cement bricks. It seemed as though someone was in mid-pave and left for lunch. I also noticed how the flow of cars and motorcycle taxis maneuvered the streets amidst j-walking pedestrians. There were no traffic signs to be found. Perhaps that’s why no one was walking and texting at the same time. This is different from NYC and during my most recent trip to Cuba, where everyone seemed to have a phone in hand.
We arrived at the school. My mind immediately flashed back to images from the movie “Sometimes in April,” about the genocide where there was a scene of a school being ambushed and there were uniformed bodies falling to their death. I took a deep breath and focused on the present. There was a large black bird with a white strip around its belly that flew over me.
There are 14 of us graduate students and we are supported by our 2 instructors who have led Project Rwanda for the last 7 years. Today we met with the 60 or so Rwandan undergraduate students. We spent the morning getting to know each other through games and theatre activities. In one of the activities, we learned that cumulatively we spoke at least 12 languages, mostly because the Rwandan students spoke between 2-8 languages! Some of the languages in the room included Kinyarwanda, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Hindi, Chinese, Kirundi, and Kituba. It was mind blowing.
In another activity I was reminded of the unifying power of music! We were asked to get into groups according to the kind of music we enjoyed. It resulted in groups representing hip hop, jazz, country, rock, slow, gospel, reggae, salsa and traditional.
In the second half of the morning the Rwandan students were placed in groups and assigned one of the four sessions the graduate students had prepared. I am working with 4 other graduate student on a Theatre of the Oppressed piece. Commonly referred to as TO, it is a form of theatre where in which the participants can rewind the story and change the outcome by playing out different moments as the protagonist. Our TO piece was on the theme of sexual harassment and followed the story of a young nannie and her experience with a very touchy boss, the father of the child she is caring for. The Rwandan students participated in the interventions and seemed passionate about getting their suggestions across. The second half of the day was spent on lunch and reflection about the morning’s events.
At some point in the day photos were taken.
I took a selfie with the Rwandan students behind me and I noticed myself. I wore a black button down collar shirt and black pants, both made from insect repellent material. My hair is currently pink and medium length on the left side and shaved on the right. For this project I made a conscious decision to cover my tattoos to the best of my ability. I chose not to wear jewelry. I had my black rimmed glasses on. Staring at the selfie I saw myself in the most genderless/gender vague state I have ever seen. I was surprised at myself for not liking it. I didn’t hate it, but I wanted my feminine features to show themselves again. It was the first time I realized that I associate my tattoos with my femininity. Unfortunately however, all of the clothes are the same version of the one I wore today. I will have to reconcile with these feelings. These are luxury problems.
Speaking of luxury… I would like to write more on the subject of privilege, specifically moments when I am confronted by my privilege. However, it is late and we have a another big day tomorrow.
Tuesday, July 11,2017
My eyes opened this morning at 3am. Much to my disappointment and unrealistic expectation my sleeping is not any better here than NYC. Knowing it was 9am in NYC I wanted to call home, but it seemed rude since my roommate was still asleep, and rightly so. I spent the next 5 hours reflecting on my interactions. The genocide was 23 years ago, which means that some of the students we are working with would have been alive then. I also began to wonder about all my other interactions. For instance the restaurant servers and people on the street and in the stores. I want to know how they survived, how they live. I want to know their stories.
This trip is quite immersive, but I do have moments of missing home: my dogs, friends and beau. My routines and familiar spaces are all jumbled. The older I get the more familiarity I need. My great-aunt enjoyed traveling a great deal and most of her travels was with tour groups where everything was all inclusive. I’m here under different circumstances.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
We began our day with the Rwandan students and MA students deconstructing the N-word. The day prior, the word was used in terms of a music reference and we felt it was important not to ignore it. A fellow MA student gave a historical context to the word from an American perspective. The Rwandans shared that the word translates to “superstar,” which is why it was used loosely the day before. The Rwandans listened to Ahn’s passionate anecdote about the impact of the word, not only on Black people in the US, but to all Black people around the world.
It seemed appropo that the next activity was “I AM,” which involved going around the circle with each person loudly, boldly and proudly saying “I AM….” Each participant finished the sentence: I am integrity; I am beautiful; I am intelligent, I am justice; I am peace; I am love. It was an invigorating start to the day! Ahn continued her energy into leading a group rhythm game.
Another activity involved creating still images using our bodies, also known as tableaux. In groups of 7-8 we were prompted to create a tableaux of a family eating dinner. The groups portrayed people eating, drinking, and dancing. A couple of groups portrayed objects such as chairs, tables and a chicken!
The next prompt was to create an image of poverty. We brainstormed in our small groups different causes and proceeded to create our images! We interpreted causes of poverty to include violence, lack of education, corruption, was, natural disaster, laziness, sickness and individualism. The conversations that led to the images allowed for many voices and perspectives to be heard!
In the latter half of the day, the MA cohort visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
The architecture of the memorial is representative of the description of Rwanda as being “the land of a thousand hills.” The memorial was open and expansive with layers of entrances and exits, multiple tiers of plateaus covered with greenery.
Our experience began with a 10-minute film interview of a few survivors who were children during the genocide who had lost their families, or worse watched their families murdered. The exhibit included a detailed timeline historical account of Rwanda pre-colonization, post-colonization, seeds toward genocide, the genocide itself, and post-genocide. The historical accounts included large images, at times graphic. It also gave faces to the genocide. Another part of the exhibit included 12 walls of photos of the victims before the genocide. There are images of people laughing, being with their families, and graduation pictures. There were also glass cases that protected the skulls, ulnas, radius, femurs, and tibias of the victims. Another room contained the victims’ clothes that had bullet holes and machete tears.
One of the most moving rooms included large images of the young children who did not survive. Their pictures were accompanied by profiles that identify their favorite snacks, hobbies, quotes, skills, age and how they died, by bullet or by machete.
There was another room dedicated to a few genocides around the world: Armenians 1915-1918; Hereros on Namibia 1904-1905; Holocaust 1939-1945; Cambodia 1975-1979; Balkans 1990s.
We closed out our visit by leaving a bouquet of flowers on the mass graves that contain 250,000 victims. We took a moment of silence and made our way home.
Each of us now carry a piece of the memorial and will care for it in different ways. But we have one common task, an ask from a memorial representative, “Please go back to your country and share our story so that it doesn’t happen again.”
Thursday, July 13, 2017
Today was the final day of presenting a Theatre of the Oppressed session to the Rwandan students. There are 5 of us in the group and we had a total of 4 opportunities to reapply our piece. Theatre of the Oppressed (aka TO) is a form of theatre developed by Augusto Boal. In this piece of theatre an entire play is presented (beginning, middle, end). The story must end on a negative note. It must also have a clear oppressed and clear oppressor and other characters that can be potential allies for the oppressed. After the play a facilitator, aka the Joker, will speak to the audience and ask them about the characters and story. This is followed by the most important part, the forum, which involves the audience physically stepping into the role of the oppressed in order to find alternative approaches to the moments when the oppressed could have said or done something different. This approach is not meant as a magic wand to make a happy ending to the story. It is about identifying moments when change can take place. It is one of my favorite Applied Theatre conventions.
The TO I worked on was a play centered around a young nanny (or as Rwandans called her, a house girl), who is feeling violated by the father of the house. The father hugs her inappropriately and touches her face as well. I have a lot of notes and anecdotes about the workshops. One anecdote that floored me was when one of the Rwandan men, after expericing our TO shared that as a man its hard to control himself when around beautiful women. He said he did not know it made them uncomfortable and now that seeing the TO he is going to talk to his wife.
Another anecdote was when one of the Rwandan women noted that the strategy of TO can be used to explore other women’s rights issues. She noted that women were previously treated as tools by men and now things are changing, and it’s important to bring that to life.
In the afternoon, we visited an artisan market. It’s a tourist spot that has many sellers with their own little room/stall full of masks, statues, dolls, bags, earrings, aprons, bowls, wallets, fabrics and more! I managed to visit most of the stalls. I made friends with two sisters with a fairly large stall. Hope and Jennie were so warm and friendly. There was a joy and camaraderie that I shared with Jennie. We hugged several times and shared a few good laughs.
Friday, July 14, 2017
Our morning began with a Black Kite bird flying around our work space! They are fairly common here and I had originally thought they were hawks. The bird seemed to have a challenging time finding the door it entered from. Luckily, one of the Rwandan students was able to catch it! And we insisted it be cared for and released immediately.
This picture was taken from the interwebs: http://www.mybirdoftheday.ca/2016/01/
Back to work!
This morning the Rwandan students were invited to reapply some of the games we had played earlier in the week. Six of the students stepped up and led with such enthusiasm. One of the games involved each of us identifying which statement we felt strongly about: The purpose of education is 1) to make money 2) to have a career 3) to gain an understanding of the world 4) to become good citizens. Each group had a representative speak on behalf of their group. One young woman shared that her father died in the genocide and then her mother died when she was 12 years old and became an orphan. She defended how education is important in order to create good citizens. She identified that before the genocide people had money and careers, what was missing was good citizenship. It was particularly moving because she was quite shy all week.
In the evening the MA cohort returned to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which has a a beautiful performance space. We attended the Ubumuntu Arts Festival which included performances by school groups, as well as professional companies, local and internationally. I was particularly moved by a piece called Zahabu, “A collection of often unheard voices; a frank and urgent message from those who have survived much, to those who will shape the future.”
Another piece that I was taken by DRC Performed by Street Dancers Company
“The small story of a colonized country that believes it has an independence but always ends itself in strengths of power unremittingly … the piece quoted above is a reflexive replica converted by movements showing a thirst for power that everything The world envies and runs after to have certainly what it wants and always remains trapped in the same logic to keep the rhythm in hand by believing that the lower people do not notice anything.”
I was very moved by festivity being in the same space at mourning. Does NYC have anything similar?
Saturday, July 15, 2017
We journeyed to Nyanza, 2.5 hours south of Kigali. It was the capital of Rwanda before the colonizers took over and removed the kingship structure in 1959. As we drove through the country side I had the thought that the trees had witnessed the genocide.
Also, in the week I have been here I yet to see a stray dog or cat. Based on a text assigned for this project I recall a note being made that during the genocide that there were so many carcasses that the dogs began eating them. Dogs were therefore killed during the genocide.
After our 2.5 hour ride, we visited the traditional king’s home. It was immediately shared that the houses are authentic replicas because the originals were ransacked during the genocide. The houses were made from thatch roofs. The land consisted of the king’s home, the House of Milk and the House of Beer. There would have also been additional small houses inhabited by the king’s other wives and children.
-In traditional Rwandan practice a marriage consists of a traditional ceremony, a government ceremony, and then a church ceremony. Only after all three have been done can the couple live together.
-House of Milk: Had cows milk. it was run my a woman, who was not allowed to marry in order to prevent men from poisoning the king. Milk drinking rules: Must be sitting down/meat and milk do not mix/don’t refuse milk/must drink all of it.
-House of beer: Banana Beer Sugum Beer, honey bear (bananna and Honey)
Part of the king’s palace is his cows!
Sunday, July 16, 2017
First day off! Spent it typing up my notes from this past week in preparation for the paper for the class.
Monday, July 17, 2017
In terms of working with the Rwanda students, today was the best day for me!Last week was wonderful, but I was somewhat disappointed in myself because I was not particularly impressed with my role in the TO piece I mentioned earlier. To give some context: we developed the piece of theatre while still in NYC and in the process I did not step up to play the role I really wanted to play, which was the facilitator (aka the Joker). It’s an extremely challenging role that requires all of one’s instincts to be on. In terms of where I am in my career, it also made sense that would take on the role. When the opportunity each member of our group of 5 put in their learning bids and first and second choice. It came down to 2 others and myself interested in Jokering. Rather that step up, I backed out. My logic was that the other two people have never had the opportunity and I have had many years of opportunities. In the creative process of developing the play I felt quite useful. However, after the first of four days sharing our theatre with the Rwandan students I was disappointed in myself. The responsibilities I took on were not the best use of my talents. In fact, I didn’t feel very useful.
This practice of bowing out to allow others with less experience is not a new habit. I have done in previous class projects. After some reflection on what fear it may be motivated by I realized it’s a fear of failure. Because I have experience doing the work I perceive that others and myself have an expectation that it will be done well. My fear is that I won’t do I good job and it will prove that I am a fraud. Self-centered fear is insidious and a liar. I am here to learn, not to show off. My friend Dee once told me that when I go to class I need not worry about knowing everything about the subject, because the point of school is to learn.
I reflected on all of this on Sunday.
By Monday I found myself focused on learning and pushing myself. There was an opportunity to create and direct a piece of TO theatre with the Rwandan students and stepped up to be one of the few solo Facilitators. It was the most fun and the most useful I felt so far! I was definitely learning, but also utilizing my skills. Don’t get me wrong I still had the voice of self-centered fear in my mind, but I ignored it by focusing on the Rwandan students and their learning. We developed a short 4 scene play and it will performed tomorrow.
I am going to share some of their insights in the process of creating our play. First, we brainstormed possible themes we could create a TO play about:
- Sexual harassment
- Domestic Violence
- Religious Discrimination
- Sexual Violence
- Lack of Freedom of Expression
- Bullying (school, work, gender, access to services)
We took a vote and chose Sexual Harassment in the work place. We spent two hours developing our play. In terms of the process, I had a delightful time and I believe so did they.
At the end of our day, we had the opportunity to get to know each other. We asked each other questions …. I learned about where they had traveled, their ages, languages they’d like to learn. Most have not left Rwanda and they were between the ages of 20-28 (at least in my group). They expressed wanting to learn French, Chinese, and other African languages. They asked if I was married, or had children. They asked what I found most satisfying about doing Applied Theatre. I shared that I cherish the opportunity to witness or be part of someone discovering their story. They asked what I was impressed about regarding Rwanda. I shared that I was impressed by the cleanliness and the lack of sexual harassment on the streets. In NYC women have to deal with being hawked at or demeaned in some way. Here it has not happened to me, nor have I witnessed it with other women. Why is that? Is it because Rwanda is a new country? Will it eventually happen down the line? What gives men the right in NYC to comment on women? Is it a NYC thing or an American thing?
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Today’s warm-ups included two games that I have yet to feel comfortable playing, Leading with Finger and Clay & Artist. The former involves 2 people, one person closes their eyes and allows their partner to lead them around the room by merely touching finger to finger. The latter activity requires 2 people, one is the artist and the other is the clay. The artist will physically sculpt the clay. My aversion to these games have always existed. I have yet to feel comfortable shutting my eyes, other than to sleep. The next activity we played was a name game and I felt very successful when I was able to name everyone in the circle!
After the warm-up games the MA cohort were tasked to teach the Rwandan students a song from the US and vice versa! Then we had to teach each other a dance!
Wednesday to Friday, July 19-21, 2017
On Wednesday we shared a folk tale that will be the inspiration of the play we will create with the Rwandan students. The result will be a play to be performed on Friday for an audience of primary school students. Playbuilding is about the process and product. In Applied Theatre it is not just about creating theatre. It is about the cyclical relationship between teaching and learning.
The students brainstormed themes within the tale:
We also did some physical brainstorming of possible moments and characters.
By the end of Wednesday the group I was assigned to work with were given the roles of main characters in the play, the twins!!!
Thursday and Friday was a blur of hard work on everyone’s part. The result was a 40 minute play with 75 actors/participants. It included dialogue, song, drumming and dance!
Friday’s performance was followed by a few hours with the students at a local restaurant.
Saturday, July 22, 2017
Today we visited the Presidential Palace of the 2nd president of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana (1937–1994), whose death was one of the first actions that began the genocide April 7, 1994. We toured the original home and the modernized home, which contained elaborate secret entrance and escape routes. The estate also housed parts of the the plane he was in that crashed into his very own back yard. There was also the infamous pool for this large single python. Next to this pool was a massive tree, something out of Neverland.
After the palace, we visited two genocide memorials, one in Ntarama and another in Nyamata.
Both sites were once littered with thousands of dead bodies. Now they house skulls, coffins, and buildings scarred from grenades and machine guns. They also exhibit piles of clothes that the victims died in, along with the belongings. In the Ntarama site there was a Sunday school building and inside, in the furthest corner from the entrance was a dark spot on the wall. It is the residue from the blood of the students who had huddled in the corner of the building before being murdered.
Sunday, July 23, 2017
Today is my last full day in Rwanda. We will be journeying to Lake Kivu in Kibuye today. More when we return.
Tomorrow morning these boots will be heading to Tanzania. I will be on the road exploring the Serengeti.
Monday, July 24, 2017
Julia and I said our goodbyes to Rwanda this morning. After a slight plane delay we found ourselves in Kilimanjaro airport waiting on line to pay our $100 for a visa to Tanzania. We were slightly concerned because we were 2 hours later than we had expected to be welcomed by our guide from Duma Explorers for our one week safari to the Serengeti!
Raymond held up a sign with Julia’s name on it. I introduced myself, explained that Julia was on her way out and that she’d be the girl with crazy blonde hair, and then I ran for a toilet.
We rode in the Duma truck with Raymond on the right front seat and driving on the left-hand side of the rode! We got a flavor of our journey when he decided to drive along the shoulder of the road because of a slow truck. The shoulder was a slanted dirt road and Julia and I found ourselves sitting sideways! It was great!
It took an hour to drive to Arusha to meet our safari mates waiting in the Duma Explorer office. Our safari mates are from Thailand, cousins who are travel buddies. They were waiting with smiles and camouflage gear with large professional cameras hanging from their necks. We were also joined by Gideon, the cook.
We drove 2 hours to Tarangire National Park where we saw warthogs, wildebeests, zebras, impalas, and baobab trees before arriving to our camp site.
We had a delicious supper by Gideon. In preparing for bed Julia and I walked with our flashlights to the toilets. Julia shined her light into the woods next to the toilets and 3 pairs of golden yellow dots reflected our lights. We were being watched by hyenas! Julia’s instinct was to shine her light, mine was to turn back, which we did. A few steps after turning back we bumped into a woman heading to the toilets with confidence and a head lamp. I asked if we could walk with her. She seemed to find us quite amusing.
At some point earlier in the evening, while waiting for supper, Raymond walked up to us and mentioned there were elephants. We followed him expecting to spot an elephant from a distance. We were wrong. There were three elephants passing through our campsite! Two large elephants and a baby elephant walked in a line. We stood about 50-75 feet away from them!
Julia and I tucked ourselves into our tent. Although she did brush off a bug off her arm and we discovered it was a tick. We found an empty water bottle and allowed it use it as its home/grave.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
5:30am wake up. 6am breakfast and on the road at 6:30am. After a morning game drive, we began our 6 hour journey to the Serengeti. We saw velvet monkeys in trees, small antelopes called dik dik, 300 year old baobab trees, herds of impalas, families of baboons, a family of 8 elephants, red breasted birds, warthogs, vultures, eagles, gazelles, mongooses, and Masai giraffes! We also saw many herds of goats and cows cared for by Maasai people.
We arrived to the camp site by 6pm. After setting up our tent Julia and I took showers, well minus the shower part. The water came from a faucet spout because the shower was not working. After our dribbling shower we headed for supper where Gideon had prepared pasta with meat sauce. I however ate it sans meat. About two months ago I made a decision to stop eating anything with a personality or a face, essentially becoming vegetarian. I am really surprised I have been able to maintain it with such ease. The decision was made in light of the way animals are treated and farmed negatively. I also think that the fact that I follow over 50 animals on Instagram impacted my decision.
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
We had a rough night’s sleep. Julia woke up in the middle of the night to the wild snores I produced! We were also kept awake by the smell of a hyena, which Julia confirms to hearing it laugh maniacally. There was also a distant moo-ing sounds, which Julia thinks were from zebras. For several hours, next to my ear, outside the tent was a digging/scraping sound. I kept imagining an animal making a new entrance. I shared with Raymond what it sounded like and he thought perhaps it was a porcupine!
We had a later start today and didn’t leave camp until 7am. We spent a long day out in the Serengeti! We observed lions hunting impalas, hypos basking in their mud/poo bath, an alligator, 10 lion cubs on top of each other, vultures feeding in a carcass, an owl snoozing on a tree, traveling baboon families, herds of elephants, a solo leopard laying on a rock, cheetahs under a tree, cheetah feasting on a gazelle, a cheetah family, zebras, both awake and asleep, gazelles, groups of mongooses, topi, rock hyrax (large looking guinea pig), many, many giraffes, velvet monkeys, and Cape buffalos!
We returned to our camp site by 6pm to enjoy kettle corn that Gideon prepared, along with the traditional Tanzanian starch, with fried potatoes and stewed cabbage on the side and banana fritters for dessert!
Julia and I decided to call it an early evening. There was certainly comfort in going to the toilet and walking to our tent while others were still moving about. We were in our tent by 8pm. A few minutes before midnight we stirred in our tent. We had to pee! We mustered up courage, collected our flashlights and headed to the toilets 200 feet away.
Thursday, July 27, 2017
We explored the Serengeti one last time. It’s a surprisingly beautiful expansive space. Surprisingly because at first sight it is open space covered in dry grass. But being in it and being able to see the details in the grass, the patches of oasis, and the feeling its vastness is what makes it beautiful.
We returned to camp and Gideon had packed up our tents and prepared lunch as well. After another hearty lunch we said good-bye to the Serengeti. Our last sighting was of a few giraffes lunching on some acacia trees.
The drive Ngorongoro crater was a bumpy one, but we all seemed to have settled into the terrain and to Raymond’s driving.
The campsite at the rim of the Ngorongoro crater was nothing I’d ever seen. There was this enormous tree that was something out of a fairytale. There was also a regular appearance of an elephant who drank out of one of the water tanks. As I stood by the bathrooms and took a picture to capture its enormity, a man walked out of the men’s room, zipped his pants, looked up and saw the elephant. The surprise on his face was precious and I nearly took a picture of it.
Another elephant explored the campsite before dinner. This time it seemed to find interest in someone’s tent. This was when the rangers had to step in. They didn’t shoot it (thank goodness!), but they did start making lots of sounds and in fact a rock was thrown at the elephant, which seemed to get it to return to the woods.
Events like this one, along with other moments while driving around, ignite conflicting feelings around safaris. Here we are on their land (the animals) and we expect them to follow our rules, whether it’s staying off a campsite or halting their trek to allow for a truck to drive by, or setting up stopping stations that accumulate trash that they are expected not to rummage through. At the same time, human efforts have helped maintain their ecosystems in the name of ‘saving’ them and the land. I am always amazed at the efforts humans make to save endangered species and to protect land. What’s ironic is that it’s also humans that are inciting the endangerment of animals and ecosystems. There’s no simple answer and there is the reality that humans are on top of the food chain, so it seems natural that we would accumulate territory. But why does it feel so wrong to take up so much space?
On this day we also had the opportunity to visit a Maasai village. Both Julia and I had our misgivings. She has traveled more than I have and has had experiences with meeting indigenous groups and has mixed feelings about it. I was very curious about the Maasai community, but I didn’t want to treat them like a petting zoo or amusement park for the sake of a photo opp. Julia and I decided to go for it knowing we’d support each other in not treating the Maasai as spectacle. There was a fee of $20 per person, which funds their clean water. Water tanks arrive at set locations and they travel with the buckets and barrels and pay for clean water for the village. I was disturbed that the government didn’t provide the Maasai with clean water for free considering how much of their tourism seems to be inspired by the Maasai. In the cities there are items labeled as Maasai or replicas of, which I highly doubt the Maasai receive compensation for.
Julia and I were given a personalized tour by Saiguran, a young Maasai man 20 years of age. We learned that he is in university studying forestry. He had the option to live in the city amongst technology, but chooses to return home during breaks and plans the same after university. We inquired what informed that decision and he shared that he missed his family and preferred their way of life. He also shared that he is studying forestry in hopes of supporting the Maasai community. Saiguran, who asked us to call him Sy, welcomed us into his parents home to see what a standard Maasai home looks like. Made from tall reeds of grass, plant straws and tree branches, the structure was very cozy and cool despite the afternoon sun. The space consisted of 4 areas: bed for the parents, bed for the child, a place for keeping pots and a barrel of water, and an area for small fire. Being a nomadic tribe, the Maasai must be able to travel light. They move twice a year to the same land. We asked how they insure others don’t move into their space and they shared that upon leaving each home must leave a plant at the door which notes that it is taken. Each village consists of nearly 100 family members, or clan. They are all related to each other and are therefore not allowed to marry within their clan. They do however, have opportunities to socialize with other clans at communal events such as weddings, celebrations or at the market.
We learned that the Maasai people originated in Cairo, Egypt and that they are represented politically in parliament. We inquired with Sy about the Maasai people’s greatest challenge. He shared that clean water is their biggest challenge and what incites their invitation to welcome visitors and charge them a fee. Julia and I were very conscious to focus on learning about their community and we avoided moments we felt might feel like they are meant for our amusement. We avoided taking pictures or dancing with them. Sy did however request that we take a picture together in order to remember him. I also took one picture from afar of a tree that a group of men were sitting under in front of a small structure where the toddlers are taught.
Sy insisted that we visit their pre-k school. This was the saddest part of our visit. Upon seeing us walk toward the school the teacher gathered the toddlers that were playing and had them sit inside the school. I had a bad feeling in my stomach. As we entered the school the 20 or so children seemingly all under 6 years old began singing a welcome song in Maasai, followed by their ABCs. One child extended their palm out. We smiled and said thank you. Sy pointed out a metal box in the front of the classroom with a lock and slit on the top. I did not have any change. Julia inserted a $5 bill on our behalf. I wished the tour did not include this. It felt exploitative of their children and at the same time saddening and disheartening that they have to resort to this.
During the visit to the school we learned that of the 20 or so children, when they turn 10 years old, only 5 will be selected by the chief to attend formal schooling. The selected will be escorted by the chief to a boarding school which the Maasai community pay for. I wondered how many girls are selected for the opportunity, considering the value placed on males. I also wondered if and how the value in formal education imposed by colonialism perpetuates patriarchal systems in the Maasai community.
Before heading back to the truck we purchased a couple of items from their market of trinkets. I purchased a coiled copper bracelet and an obscure wood carving. It seemed to be one of its kind. I picked it up before processing what it was and Sy said, that’s a tortoise. It was meant to be! (Side note: I collect tortoise figurines. I have one from London, Galapagos, PR, and Aruba, to name a few.)
Back in the truck I reflected on the experience of speaking with Sy and how the Maasai seem to want others to know their plight for clean water. I plan on researching ways I can support clean water access.
Friday, July 28, 2017
It was very cold this morning and the dew drops from the tree over our tent made drip-drop sounds. We rose at 5:30am for a 6am breakfast and 6:20 departure for the Ngorongoro Crater. The first and last crater I saw was a caldera in the Galápagos Islands in 2015. I was not however able to enter that crater, so the Ngorongoro was going to be my first!
We piled into the truck with everyone all bundled up and rushing to shut the windows. The view was breathtaking as we drove down the winding road to the crater floor.
Upon descending into the crater we were welcomed by a lone elephant snacking on a tree. I’m amazed at how they seemed unfazed by the roars of the trucks. The crater is resident to thousands of wildebeests. Because of how they look, it looks like a Metallica concert. There are also an endless sea of black and white stripes from the zebras! We learned that the two support each other quite a bit. During the migration of the wildebeest there are zebras in the front of the line and the back. This is because wildebeests have terrible eyesight and hearing, unlike the zebra who has stellar eyesight and hearing. The zebras have taken on the role of navigator and lookout.
There were many birds in the crater like the helmeted guineafowl, gray-crowned crane, Egyptian geese, bustards, yellow-billed egrets, blacksmith bluebird, hamerkops (building a nest!), and lilac-breasted roller, along with hyenas, warthogs, jackals, hippos and mating ostriches! There were also few sleeping lions, several snacking elephants, and lone cape buffalos.
We returned to the rim of the crater where Gideon had packed all of our belongings, tents, and kitchen supplies. Upon exiting Ngorongoro we had a boxed lunch at a rest stop and then headed for the Duma Explorer office, where we said our goodbyes to Raymond, Gideon and travel-mates.
Now on a flight from Kilimanjaro to NYC, via Doha reflecting on the past 3 weeks. It is longest I have ever been away from home. Although I am looking forward to my return I wish I had carved out more time for reflection on this journey. I had not expected it, but I think that the last 3 weeks have been and will continue to be life-changing. I am particularly eternally grateful for all the folks who provided me with financial support to work in Rwanda. It was a mind and heart opening experience. Not a day has gone by this last week that I have not thought about one of the students who was born during the genocide. This young person was born a month after the genocide began, and sadly their father died the first week of the genocide. I cannot imagine what their mother went through. I am also reflecting on ways my privileges can support access to free clean water.
This journey is a gateway to new chapter in my life, a chapter of “firsts.” First… trip to Africa… trip away from home for more than 10 days. Upon my return to NYC, I will be leaving the first full-time job that I have been At for 18 years. I will be moving on from being a Program Director at Creative Arts Team, to being the new Associate Artistic Director at The 52nd Street Project. I will also be entering the final year of the Masters in Applied Theatre program.
Here’s to new beginnings!