Callie Woody : Rwanda

I was born and raised in a small mountain town in Western Montana. My junior year of high school I had the privilege to study abroad in, and soon fall in love with, the Republic of Ghana. My time abroad sparked my love for travel and first introduced me to the field of international development. This experience is why I ultimately left Montana for the great state of Washington, fascinated by the world around me and determined to learn more about it. I’m now going into my junior year at Seattle University, pursuing a degree in International Studies and International Economic Development.  

While at SU I spend a majority of my time volunteering at the NELA Center for Student Success and working to oversee the nonprofit It Takes a Village Montana. NELA and ITVmontana provide varied perspectives on education systems around the world, a topic I continue to find more interest in (specifically their relation to economic outcomes). In my free time I like to backpack, ski, travel, and return to Montana as often as I can.

After college I hope to work abroad (Ghana!) for a development agency or for the American Foreign Service. I am so thankful to be participating in the IDIP program this year, and I look forward to gaining some hands-on experience and challenging myself to further discern what interests me in the field of development!

Reflection # 1 

Many Rwandans say they are famous for “just two things”- the mountain gorillas and the genocide. The plight of one of the last remaining populations of mountain gorillas, made famous by Gorillas In the Mist, documents the life of Diane Fossey. My friends in Seattle confirmed the second source of Rwanda’s fame - “Rwanda? Like Hotel Rwanda??” they’d ask, incredulous I’d actually be living in a place they only associated with murder and violence. Most Americans have seen Hotel Rwanda. And, like Gorillas in the Mist, much of their knowledge of Rwanda stops here. Rwanda = genocide and gorillas. However, the country I’ve come to know today is something much different; walking the streets of Kigali and Gashora it’s hard to imagine the destruction that took place here just under twenty years ago. The world has seen this too, and expats flock by the hundreds to experience of one of the modern world’s greatest stories of success and triumph. President Kagame, the country’s uncontested and relentless leader since the genocide, has transformed Rwanda into one of the safest countries in Africa. My prior experience in Africa led me to associate African capitals with chaos, traffic jams and a sense of lawlessness. Kigali caught me off guard; the streets that meander its rolling hills are cleaner than any in the US, cars and the boundless moto-taxis follow traffic lights, and it’s safe to walk around at night. This is the Rwanda that any visitor sees today: a thriving country, clean and orderly, and with a contagious atmosphere of opportunity and new beginnings.

I’m not living in Kigali, but in the rural village of Gashora in the southeastern corner of Rwanda. The Bugesera District was the hardest hit region of the genocide, and with time you begin to recognize the undercurrents of terror, remnants of the genocide that exist just beneath the surface. The author of A Thousand Hills says it perfectly, “There comes a time when its story overwhelms the intellect and the conscious mind. Floods of grief and pain, sharpened immeasurably by the realization that an outsider’s emotions can never even approach the agony that enveloped and still envelops most Rwandans, becomes a torrent that, at least momentarily, drowns thought and reason.” That moment happened to me several days ago, outside the Hotel Mille Collines (real-life Hotel Rwanda). I’d just met a man who’d lost his entire family in the genocide, just beyond the gates of Mille Collines. The enormity of this hotel and of the history of Rwanda consumed me with emotion and despair. Days like these are difficult, but I find strolling through the village of Gashora or talking with the girls at the Academy lifts even the most defeated spirits.

I’ve been in Rwanda for almost one month now, and as I sit here listening to the rain pound outside my house, I find myself oddly at home. I’ve come to find comfort in the silence of rural life, in the dreadfully boring evenings and the days where the most exciting thing is a walk into the village, accompanied by an entourage of children in the muzungu trance. I’m working for the Rwanda Girls Initiative at the Gashora Girls Academy, (GGA) a premier institution for some of the most intelligent girls in the country. The school is less than ten miles from the Burundi Border, in the far southeastern corner of Rwanda. This is savannah region, and one of my coworkers calls it “the ugliest part of the most beautiful country in the world.” I have a hard time agreeing with her on this; I look out my window every morning over the farm to Lake Mireye, transfixed by the endless savannah beyond the water. Rwanda, aptly named The Land of A Thousand Hills, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

As the first intern for Rwanda Girls Initiative at GGA, my scope of work has changed several times since arriving three weeks ago. It’s been a roller coaster of excitement, frustration, contentment, and some more frustration and excitement. I am extremely independent in my day-to-day activities, so much so that upon arriving I was told to “take a look around, and report back with the big questions.” Take that for an introduction! Since then I haven’t stopped researching, asking questions, and taking it all in. Through this process I’ve learned a tremendous amount about school sustainability, and ultimately created a scope of work that helps to answer ‘the big question.’

This big question is sustainability- can GGA sustain itself both structurally and financially without foreign support? The goal of RGI was to develop a 7-year plan to financial sustainability, with the aim to separate GGA from the traditional aid plan of dependency on foreign donors. I’m in Gashora at a very exciting time, as the plans for financial sustainability are just now taking shape. I’m developing two business ventures for GGA: a dried fruit business and a winter English camp. The dried fruit is extremely critical to the sustainability of the school’s agriculture project, and the winter camp will provide another source of income during the holidays. In two weeks a team of MBA students from Wharton arrive to look at establishing a thirty million-endowment fund; I’m also currently helping with the initial process of research, scheduling meetings, and small business development to assist in their work. On Tuesday I travel to Uganda to tour other sustainable school projects, where I’ll be meeting and exchanging ideas with another NGO. My days are picking up, and I find a sense of urgency knowing I only have two months left.

Through it all I’ve found a greater sense of independence and responsibility; the success of these projects depend entirely on my motivation to get them done. I’ve already learned a significant amount about the development of sustainable schools, something that I hope to pursue in the future with my interest in education. And through it all I’ve found that as much as I hate to admit it, having recently switched from International Business to International Studies, life keeps throwing me in the path of business development.

My experience thus far has taught me to question my surroundings, to look beneath the surface of public life, to push myself to think critically about my observations, and, above all, to appreciate the small things (meat at dinner, a rainstorm to break the heat, a perfectly-executed Kinyarwanda conversation, and the ever-present deafening silence). Murabeho.

Reflection # 2

My days in Rwanda end with the usual commute home on the back of a moto-taxi; when I first arrived here in January I held on tightly, scared to death of the crazy driving tactics of the motos. Yet today, just two months later, I casually pull out my phone to check my email on the back of the moto, looking around as we fly through afternoon traffic. Little things like this portray the comfort with which I’ve come to find in my Rwandan life. As an American college student, I once thrived off caffeine and stressful situations; Rwanda has shown me to slow down and take the time to enjoy good company before work, to have that mug of milk tea and to be self-motivated. Adjusting to “Africa Time” was a difficult transition, and I often found myself antsy and frustrated. Yet now, with just one month left here in East Africa, I’ve finally learned the art of striking this fragile balance of hard work and of letting things happen as they will.

The second half my internship has been marked by more energy and activity than the first half, as I’ve decided to move to Kigali to live with my country-director, Maria, in order to better fulfill my role for RGI. Maria is one of the most intelligent and caring people I’ve ever met, and I couldn’t be happier spending my final few weeks living with her. My days are no longer spent in the faculty house of Gashora, but in various Kigali coffee shops, researching business development and crunching numbers for the dried fruit business and business center. I return to Gashora once or twice a week to work with Jonah, the agriculture project manager, on various revenue-generating farm projects. My evenings are no longer spent reading in Gashora, but discussing politics while watching the news with Maria. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about Rwanda’s past and future from my Rwandan mother, and staying with her has brought an entirely new level of knowledge and understanding of Rwandan society.

In mid-February I spent a week in Uganda touring project sites on school sustainability. My site visit to Uganda marked a turning point and a change in my internship; my understanding of school sustainability increased significantly, and I became surer of my work with developing small business ventures for RGI. It tested my intuition as an independent female traveler and my ability to transfer programs from Ugandan to Rwandan scenarios, a difficult task to do at first. It was a valuable exposure to East African cultures and development projects, as we studied animal rearing and rural business centers, both of which are applicable to Gashora in a multitude of ways. Uganda was my first exposure to independent travel, and I was forced to put myself out there in the project delegation to ensure I maximized my time and my experience.

My work with small business development went on hold in February after I returned from Uganda in preparation for the Wharton delegation. RGI Seattle hired a group of Wharton MBA students to conduct a research project on financial sustainability and deliver recommendations as to how to achieve financial independence after a one-week visit to Rwanda. I worked on scheduling meetings with various ministries, corporations and tourism companies, joining them in these meetings at the end of February. It was an incredible honor and opportunity to join them in meeting some of Rwanda’s most influential figures as we explored different avenues of financial sustainability. The Wharton delegation fulfilled my broader understanding of the work required for financial sustainability; on the micro side, small business development to fund current projects is essential, yet on the macro side RGI needs an endowment and/or corporate partnerships to fund the entire operation of Gashora Girls Academy. As I discern where I see my future work with education, understanding the relationship and importance of both of these levels has been an invaluable experience.

Aside from my follow-up work for the Wharton delegation, I’ve been continuing my work developing a dried fruit business and a community business center. I’ve been working on analyzing the feasibility of each project with price points and potential markets, so my days are a mix of sitting in Kigali coffee shops or meeting with different vendors throughout the city and in Gashora. As my internship comes to a close, I’m finally at the point where my reports are being finalized and I can begin recommendations for each business opportunity. It’s an exciting stage in my work, and each day becomes busier than the next.

Although I’m working on several different projects now, the one constant factor in my internship has been independence. This has been both a blessing and a curse; a curse in that my direction was somewhat ambiguous, yet a blessing because it’s enabled me to cultivate personal initiative and really challenge myself both personally and intellectually. As I enter my final month here in Rwanda, I am so grateful that my independence has been a constant in my experience. Although I spend a majority of my days alone on my computer, I’ve been able to find a rhythm in the loneliness (not to mention read an insane amount of books).

Living in Kigali has given me a different perspective on Rwanda than Gashora; I’m no longer surrounded by just the school staff, but by Rwandans and expats from all walks of life. I’ve met some pretty remarkable travelers, Rwandan youth and high-flying businessmen and government officials. The two coffee shops I regular know my order, and I’m beginning to establish a group of friends and acquaintances in this small city. Being in Kigali is more exciting now than ever, as I’m face-to-face every day with the booming investment world and changing landscape of urban Rwandan society.