Sunday, January 30, 2011

Preparing for Quaker Skype Conference

Dear Friends,

First let me show you some pictures of the Gisenyi Friends Church that my friend Francis took during this morning's service :



There are about 30 families in the church, and many of them have young kids.  There is lots of singing and dancing by almost everyone throughout much of the service, with about of a third of the church participating in one of the two choir sections.

I'm looking forward to our skype fellowship videoconference.  Five kids from Gisenyi meeting will participate, and Etienne (the paster shown here) will translate.

I think for the structure of this first meeting, we can have each child give a brief (prepared) two-sentence introduction, which Etienne will translate.  After introductions, we will have a child from one country ask a (prepared) question of the children from the other country, and we can have some answers.  Then a question will come the other direction.  If we have time, we can do two questions each direction, and then we can finish how feels appropriate.

Here is a youtube video showing how the conference will look if we record it right.



We're all very excited, and looking forward to seeing you!

Sincerely,
-Steven

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Three Weeks In, Fourteen to Go

Hello all,

It's been an exciting three weeks.  I didn't mail out my last two posts, linked here:

I will now describe briefly the items I have worked on the last (third) week:  
 - Budgeting for church facilities improvements
 - 15th St. Meeting / Gisenyi Friends Church inter-continental inter-congregational communications
 - A Congolese Quaker youth group: Invitation to connect / request for suggestions  
 - Visa difficulties in trying to visit and do (volunteer) work in the Congo
 - Languages

Mostly by following the church leaders around the market, I helped price out about $2700 of purchases for the church.  These purchases will prepare the church to host a 30-person, two-week training on "Alternatives to Violence Programs".  The training will include 8 professionals from Rwanda, 8 from Burundi, and 8 from the DR Congo.  There will be five facilitators also from the three countries, plus one token American: myself.  Pastor Etienne, an active young leader in the church named Francis, and Francis' wife Antoinette (Etienne's daughter), did the actual price-asking over a few trips, and I took notes and stayed unfortunately conspicuous as always.

I am very happy to report that videoconferencing is now working!  I spent much of my time the last week and a half dealing with computer viruses and trying to find a good Skype + webcam setup so that we can videoconference kids from the 15th Street Quaker Meeting in NYC with kids here from the Gisenyi Friends Church.  The internet cafes around here all have notoriously slow internet, and consistently experience power outages.  All other internet is accessed by wireless modems that use the cellphone network, that are also slow.  Only one carrier, RWANDATEL, offers acceptable 3G speeds that will allow videoconferences, but that carrier was updating its system and could not register new SIM cards for another week.  I tried various internet cafés, tried the wireless at some hotels, and nothing was working out.

On Sunday Jan 22, we had a trial videoconference on Sunday, but the 3G network of the carrier TIGO proved too elusive.  So, I finally purchased an extra Rwandatel modem for $40 just so I could have the SIM card that goes with it - I expect I will be able to resell it for a similar price.  Then, at Tuesday midday in Rwanda, Tuesday morning in NYC, I introduced AyJy to my host family here over a great videoconference.  You can see the recording of the first five minutes of our conversation here.  Based on how today's trial went, I am very excited about this weekend with the kids.

I also distributed the twenty-eight greeting cards written by 15th street members and attenders to the Gisenyi Friends Church.  Each of the letters was given to a member of the Gisenyi Friends Church, and we will translate them tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon. I suspect a response is forthcoming, so I will follow up with pictures and the latest news in the next couple of days. 

I have spent a good deal of time talking with Aimé, a Quaker Congolese law student at the University of the Great Lakes Countries in Goma, Congo.  Aimé is in his final semester, and law school is a 5-year baccalaureate.  Aimé has been a facilitator at Quaker AVP trainings in 2007 and 2009, and is very interested in connecting with Quakers abroad. 

He is interested in starting a club connecting young Congolese Quakers in Goma and Kinshasa with Quaker students and humanitarian clubs in the USA.  He hopes such a club can brainstorm ways that empowered students can join efforts from all sides to make incremental improvements in the security nightmare plaguing the Eastern Congo.  

I plan to try to connect him with Swarthmore's War News Radio and the Genocide Intervention Network, as well as with the "Solidarity Voting Initiatives" group that I have been working with over the last year.  More academic and heavy institutional orgs like Montreal's MIGS, the USIP, Ben Affleck's Eastern Congo Initiative, etc. might also be interested.  If you know anyone at these or similar organizations that would be interested in connecting with Aimé and the kind of email/phone correspondence club he envisions, please feel free to drop us a line.  Aimé's email is: aimudaka@yahoo.fr and his phone number is: +243 994429526.

I am raring to go, to help Zawadi NIKUZE out with the planned women's shelter projects in Goma and Masisi.  However, my visa is still on the wait.  Zawadi is currently working on getting me a notarized invitation letter, which is a prerequisite for applying for a visa to Congo from most anywhere.  So, after I get the notarized letter, I will try to get a visa at the Congo's embassy to Rwanda at Kigali, and will then try crossing the border at Bukavu, because everyone says it will be easier for an American there than at Goma/Gisenyi.  If that doesn't work, or if I can't even get the visa, I will try in Burundi.  And if that mockingbird won't sing either, I may DHL my materials back the the USA to apply for a 2-month or 1-month visa at the Congo embassy to the USA.

My Kinyarwanda is steadily improving despite my relative inattention to it, compared to the first week.  I really want to improve so I can understand more conversations during the AVP program which is sure to be linguistically cacophonous.  Although, my French has been getting some good exercise.

Thanks for listening again, and have a wonderful week!

Peace,
-Steven Bhardwaj
Rwanda phone: 0784114209
USA phone (transfers to Rwanda): (+1) 917-725-5122
USA fax: (+1) 347-416-6273

Saturday, January 22, 2011

One-Week Update

Dear All,

Thanks for your interest and support of my work in Rwanda and (hopefully) the Congo. I have been remiss for some weeks on blog updates because of internet and virus problems. So this will be a long entry - with a table of contents.
1. Discussions with Aimé, from a Congolese Quaker youth group
2. Plans for video conferences with children from Gisenyi Friends Church
3. My work with Gisenyi Peace Center
4. Gory details of my internet and virus travails

1. I have been talking with Aimé MUDATEBA KAMANZI, a law student in his final year at the Université Libre des Pays des Grand Lacs à Goma, DRC. Aimé has been an AVP facilitator twice, at a 3-day workshop in Kanyabayonga and in IDP Camp Mugunga, both in 2008. He speaks perfect French, along with Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, and English.

He has been a member of Quaker churches for fourteen years. He began with CEACO Katindo, the first Quaker Church in the DRC, in Goma, and has also lived in Burundi and Kigali. Pastor Etienne Nsanzimana, my host here in Gisenyi, knows Aimé well.
Aimé crosses the border every week or so for various errands, and has been meeting with me. He is part of an energetic group of about ten young Congolese Quakers, who are interested in connecting to the larger international body of Quakers, and to other international and humanitarian groups as well. Aimé and his friends have some relevant and timely ideas on current peace-related initatives in the DRC and North Kivu. I will follow up on these extensive thoughts in my next post.
2. The 15th St. Meeting / Gisenyi Friends Church videoconferences

Thanks to the consistent and enthusiastic interest of many members of the 15th Street Meeting and Gisenyi Friends Church, it looks like this idea will finally come to fruition. On Sunday Jan 23 at 11:15am EST and 6:15pm Gisenyi (tomorrow), we will do a dry run. Then, the next week Jan 30 at the same time, we will run the our first call. Leading up to it, I will distribute the greeting cards from 15th St Meeting to Gisenyi Friends Church tomorrow. This will be exciting.
3. The Gisenyi Peace Center will be a one-story building with one large hall and a few small side rooms - about 12m x 28m overall. The foundation is complete and the brick walls and concrete support columns are about 70% done. The walls and columns, roof, and finishes are remaining. I will be working with Francis and Jean-Baptiste from the church to update the existing design, and plan the remaining work. This will include completing updated plan drawings, determining remaining quantities, finding updated prices, and planning a schedule for the remaining work. The drawings are currently in Kigali to be scanned.

There will be a 2-week AVP conference with representatives from Burundi, DRC Congo, and Rwanda, from Febuary 28 to March 12. We will be upgrading some of the current (makeshift) finishes of the Gisenyi Peace Center to support this conference. I have been working with Francis to review the existing items and determine what remains to be purchased.

4. I have soon to emerge from a frustrating bout with virus and internet problems. After using a flash drive on Friday Jan 15, my computer was suddenly slammed with nasty viruses. After three restarts and 15 minutes, every time I opened Windows it would abruptly shut down. Last week I took the computer around town and found Imam, an experienced computer and cellphone repairman extraordinare known throughout town. He fixed my computer and I bought Kaspersky Antivirus from him. One week later, my communications are finally functional again.
However, internet is a different story. I started my visit off by buying a MTN modem, but service is far too slow and intermittent to support scheduled skype calls, and especially not video. Typical download rates are 1 or 2 kbps. This is fine for email with image-downloading disabled on the browser, but hardly for anything else. This last week I tried to switch to Rwandatel which will be faster, but Rwandatel is having problems right now and cannot register any new sim-cards for internet customers. So I plan to buy a webcam to do this trial run on Sunday at an internet cafe, or else try to plug my computer into an ethernet cable at the internet cafe that allows that.
Eventually, though, I think that will be the best solution for the inter-church conferences in the long term, expecting the church to keep a laptop bug-free and available is a tall order.

Friday, January 14, 2011

First Week in Gisenyi

Ah, it's been a whole week, so here's a summary. I'll follow up on
these items in more detail in later posts.

Sunday
- English-language church service in the morning. Service was by
Pastor Matt from the 'States, from the Evangelical branch of the
Quakers. I also met the other seven Quaker westerners visiting in
Gisenyi. I got a brief tour of Gasharu, and then rode to Gisenyi with
Dave Bucura. We had a great chat about the history of churches here,
and about things in general. Etienne come in late after helping
organize a 1000+ person "Crusade" in partnership with a coalition of
other churches here in Gisenyi. The posters for this "Great Great
Gospel Festival" are still up all over town. Etienne's sons Josh and
Elijah are using the posters as book covers for their notebooks.

Monday
- I visited the Gisenyi Peace center for the first time, and met with
Etienne and Dave Bucura at the Friends Peace Center in Gisenyi. They
had laid the foundations and partially built some walls, to satisy the
Rwandan government's requirement that property be used or built upon,
or someone that will use it will get it. Etienne showed me the limits
of the property and we discussed potential locations for buildings for
the finished state. I think it's probably okay at this point that
much discussion is in Kinyarwanda, as I don't want to be too active in
the planning yet as I haven't met much of the community. I also met
Etienne's wife Nyiransabuwite (spelling by Etienne's son Joshua.) I
have been calling her "Mama Timo". Mama Timo is wonderful, and speaks
primarily Kinyarwanda, so this is another big incetive to learn
Kinyarwanda. I will be quite limited in the scope of people I can
talk to as long as I am limited to French and English here.

Tuesday
- Met Zawadi Nikuze with Etienne and Dave Bucura at the FPC. Zawadi
runs a small local NGO which has five or six projects around the
region with various donors, many of them Quaker. The primary one in
Goma is the work with rape survivors, and the women's shelter
there. We will be working hard on figuring out how to get my visa so
I can get over there. Hopefully it will go through easily.

Wednesday
- I busted through four Kinyarwanda lessons today. The lessons take
me about 2 hours apiece, and there are 130 of them in the book. So I
can be mostly done with the book if I can do four a day. After
studying in the morning, Etienne had invited one of his in-laws, a
young man named Harora, to take me to see a football game. It was a
small 4-team tournament in the Coupe d'Afrique U17 league, including
teams from Mali, Cote d'Ivoire, Congo-Brazzaville, and one other team.
We watched the second match, between Cote d'Ivoire and
Congo-Brazzaville - it was an exciting game, with Cote d'Ivoire
scoring the tying goal in the last 5 minutes.

Thursday
Inspired by the soccer game, I went for a 20min jog to the church and
back on Thurs morning, and then finished out some emails discussing
funding transfers with AGLI staff. I was lucky to visit with a
Congolese law student named Aime, who I will write more about later. I
sent an email to introduce him to Camilla Campisi at QUNO.

During this time, my laptop was also completely trashed yesterday by
an incredibly terrible virus. Half an hour and three restarts after
plugging in the guilty flash-drive, my computer shuts down abruptly a
few seconds after I login. This is re-inspiring me to be more careful
around other kinds of endemic problems - whether medical or in terms of crime.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Family and Church Get-togethers

Here's the picture I promised with Dave and Rachel Bucura.

Friday evening after returning to the house, was the Christmas holidays family reunion for Rachel's side of the family.  About four couples showed up in two cars, with a few teenagers and kids.  Rachel, her daughters, and her domestic employee had cooked up a feast including ugali, a corn dish that is halfway between cream-of-wheat and Lao sticky rice.

Sitting in a ring of sofas and chairs, there was extensive discussion about culture, economics, and everything else.  Just like with my uncles and aunts in the States... except 100% in Kinyarwanda.  This is really motivating me to hit the books.  Everyone spoke English or French, though, so sometimes when they told a particularly funny joke, it would get translated.  Rachel's brother Fidéle talked about how fresh and tasty the food is in Africa - and why I should really stay here.  Fresh avocados, mangoes, berries - you can just pick
 the corn right off the plant.  He is true.  (A lot of people say "you are true" instead of "that's right.")

Much of this family is in the NGO-related fields.  Habat is in college studying "development studies" and he talked with me for quite a while, with perfect French and very good English.  His language story is amazing although relatively typical: he started college in Uganda without speaking a word of English.  Many classmates complained that he was faking it and actually spoke English.  However, he straightforwardly told them that he was really struggling and asked them to only speak English to him, even if he couldn't understand anything.  And he clearly eventually succeeded.

Habat also did an internship with AGLI mentoring and helping about 20 young at-risk elementary and middle-school boys stay in school.  Although some of them showed significant improvement over the three months, others were harder to reach.  Habat was incredibly open with me, telling stories about tracking down the students defiantly playing hooky and worse.  Despite its emotional difficulty at times, Habat loves this kind of work because he loves to get out of the office and work with people.

Saturday, Jan 8.  Yves and I went back to the city center.  I purchased a cellular modem for $37, and a power cable for the computer.  I also made large-size map prints of the Kigali city.  (1994-vintage declassified "For Military and Humanitarian Use only")  Even with the map, it will be impossible to navigate the buses around Kigali without speaking Kinyarwanda.  Yves estimated cab trips at US $9 for a 20min trip.  I haven't tried that yet.

Returing to the house, I got to participate in a fellowship celebration with the elders of Dave Bucura's Gasharu Church.  They are a young congregation, mostly couples in their 20s and 30s.  As Dave was the first headmaster of a Friends' primary school in Kigali, many of this congregation remember him from when they were students during that time.  In-between, Dave has worked for AGLI doing AVP and HROC, and received a Masters in Theology and Management at Nairobi International School of Theology.  He has also spent much time at many meetings in the USA.  (Look out for my next post on Dave's memories of a conference in Hawaii!)

One of the church song leaders named Baptiste translated me through the five-hour afternoon.  This proved to be key, as Rachel had organized various pick-a-paper-out-of-the-hat icebreaker games, with about 3o people present.

When my turn came to pick a slip of paper out of a hat, I picked the most-feared question of all: to dance.  Actually this wasn't half as difficult as some of the other questions like, "tell us your personal testimony in 5 min," which a young woman had done very gracefully.  Instead of dancing, I sang a song I had learned during the plane flight.  It is part of the audio lessons on SpeakRwanda.com.  Here are the

lyrics:
---------
Njye nzahora mpimbaza uwiteka / Umwami wange, Imana yange
Njye nzahora mpimbaza uwiteka / Umwami wange, Imana yange

Mugitondo - wo! / Karecyane - wo! / Nzaririmba: hallelujah.
Ndimurugo - wo! / Cyangwa ndyamye - wo! / Nzaririmba: hallelujah.
---------
I will always praise the Everlasting / My Lord, my God.
I will always praise the Everlasting / My Lord, my God.

In the morning - wo! / Very early - wo! / I will sing: hallelujah
At home - wo! / Even while sleeping - wo! / I will sing: hallelujah
--------

So that went over quite well, as it turned out to be one of the congregation's frequent hymms.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Arrived in Rwanda (and Friends Without Border)

Thanks to everyone who replied to my medium-inclusive mass email! 
 
If you are getting this as an email, I have started the practice of including some friends on an email list when I post blog entries.  So as I post, you will receive an email from me at the same time.
 
If you want to unsuscribe from this list, or if you would like to add someone to my list, just reply to me.
Cheers,
-Steven
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 
I am now staying comfortably at the home of David Bucura in Kigali, Rwanda.  I will stay here until Sunday Jan 9, and soon after the service, he will drive us to Gisenyi.
 
The plane arrived last night right-on-time at 8pm.  It took an hour to get through the customs, but that went very smoothly.  Dave lives nearby the airport - so we returned home to a delicious dinner of peas, potato, greens, beef stew, and tea.  There were not many mosquitoes, so the family does not use the nets this time of year, but we set one up for me just to dot-the-eye and cross-the-tee.  Breakfast was similarly wonderful, and I will add a picture of us at dinner shortly.
 
The next morning, Dave's son Yves showed me around town.  I changed some money, got my phone working, and visited the US embassy library.  The bus system is amazing - medium-size vans that stop at designated stops, with standard prices.  People stick to their seats, I saw no floor-sitting or livestock.  But, they were not shy about getting cozy in the name of efficiency.
 
From a woman I talked to in line at the airport, to the customer service rep at the bank, everyone wanted to know "what sector I was in," and "will you start a business?"  Maybe it's my white button-down collared shirt, but I think that everyone is excited about western business coming to town, in a overwhelmingly positive way.
 
There may be some construction improvements to be done at the Quaker offices - this could be a side project after my work in Gisenyi and Goma.
 
My Rwanda cellphone number is +250 784114209.  My skypein number, (917) 725-5122, does not point to it yet, but it will soon.  Hopefully I will get it set up after I post this entry.
 
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The following is a post I wrote a week ago but never put up:
 
Friends Without Borders is an interesting effort.  The organization has been facilitating pen-pal letters between children in India and Pakistan.  Achingly beautiful. 

Letters from children are great - I think there are also plenty of adults with humanitarian ideals that might also want to make similar connections.  The example of Zainab Salbi, Lisa Shannon, and other members of Women for Women International seems like a great way forward.  Humanitarian work as peer-to-peer solidarity.  Idealism without erring on the side of paternalism.

-Steven Bhardwaj

Monday, January 3, 2011

Nicholas Kristof / Women Survivors in DRC

I need to read more Nicholas Kristof (NYT).  I searched his blog for Congo, and came up with a very useful morning of reading and viewing material.  This Feb 2010 article by Kristof explains why we need to engage with DRC, and provides four policy priorities.  He concludes that the missing part of our international aid efforts is not a better policy, but insufficient political will for engagement from the USA and other powerful countries.  

All this means is: we need more letters and calls to congressmen to engage with the DRC - even if the calls simply emphasize priorities like Kristof's four items.

Kristof's blog also led me to many very engaging videos of women survivors in DRC - on the rebound!

The IRC is one of the largest providers of humanitarian aid in the DRC.  IRC aid worker Jean-Marie Toro Mataboro of Bukavu tells the story of a young girl who is succeding despite having to survive incredible childhood injury and violence.  Sarah Moseley of the IRC tells about working to build communities of survivors.

Kristof mentions the Panzi Hospital of Bukavu (South Kivu, DRC) as one of his favorite smaller-time humanitarian efforts.  Dr. Lee Ann De Reus, a social sciences professor at Penn State University, interviewed survivors at Panzi Hospital in 2009 - here is her brief talk on NPR.

Kristof also interviewed Lisa Shannon, who is dedicating her life in a more entrepreneurial style to advocating for survivors in the Congo.  Incredibly, Lisa was originally inspired by hearing Oprah's and Lisa Ling's 2005 show on the Congo.

Eve Ensler's organization V-Day has also been doing some impressive work.  Here is a video of women building the "City of Joy," and an inspiring video of V-Day workshops.