Have you wondered what my village is truly like? Here’s a post not written by me to help you get a second perspective. My close friend Bobby Odonnel visited from the states a couple months ago, and I asked him if he would guest write a post about his experiences! Bobby is one the greatest adventurers I’ve ever met and even turned my cross cultural school partnership program into something I never could have imagined. And now you can get to know him and my village at the same time. Boom! Enjoy!
“I recently returned form spending about two months in Africa. In those two months I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, explored the plains of Tanzania, invented my own marathon on an island, and dove all over South Africa.
However, none of these adventures top the list of my favorite experience while in Africa. It’s actually something quite, quite different than any of the above expeditions.
But two months, really? Gallivanting around and exploring. That’s nothing. Two and a half years, yea that’s pretty impressive.
Two and a half years is the commitment my best friend, Ryan Sandford has made as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda.
When I told Ryan I was coming to Africa for a race in February, I knew I had to figure out how to see him. So I started just like I start most of my trips, buy a plane ticket, and figure the rest out later. Not always suggested by the way.
As it got closer, Ryan began sending me voice memos through What’s App of important phrases I should know in kinyarwandan. Like “amakuru” how are you? “Muraho neza” hello “meza neza” i’m well, and most importantly “simbizi” I don’t know.
The next thing he sent me was an important list of instructions on how to get to his village. Since he would be teaching all day, he would be unable to meet me in the city the day I arrived. So with his treasure map style list of directions, I was in charge of navigating myself to a village that I couldn’t even find on Google Maps.
And it was all going to go as planned. Of course not. My connecting flight in Ethiopia got delayed about 6 hours and I arrived in the capital city of Kigali much later than I expected. I overpaid for a taxi to the Nyabagogo bus station where I clamored onto a rusty old van that seats 15 and wedged myself in the middle of 18 Rwandans with my 65 liter pack on my lap. Now it was getting dark. And all I knew was I needed to get off at a place called henyo to meet a moto driver named Saloma.
The bus flew around the windy roads leading into the countryside. Sweat poured off of me while I savored the last few drops of a water bottle. I just kept praying that Saloma would still be at Henyo after arriving so late and in the dark.
When I originally asked Ryan how Saloma would find me, he replied, dude, you’re white. Point taken.
As is typical, nothing goes exactly as planned and I got off one stop too far and quickly became the most popular client in Ruhango for a moto driver. As I was swarmed with young hopefuls aiming to cash in big on me, which was still roughly $2 US dollars, I chose the first guy out of fairness. We zipped along through the dark on his moto up the hills and into the night.
We rounded the corner, and I saw a man frantically waving and jumping up and down as we passed. I tapped my driver who seemed to be ignoring me; but that was without a doubt, Saloma. I finally gave him a light smack on the side of his helmet causing us to swerve slightly as Saloma pulled up beside us. We shook hands, and I was finally off to see Ryan. Dirt roads, big bumps, pitch dark, rickety motorcycle, I just put all my faith and safety into a Moto driver named Saloma.
Thankfully, he got me there in one piece and dropped me off at Ryan’s home.
It was so incredible to actually be in Ryan’s village. After reading his blog posts and talking to him online for so long, I was finally here. We had some beers, and spent the night catching up on what it is like leaving your home in suburban New Hampshire to be in a tiny village in the middle of the Rwandan countryside.
The next morning, Ryan had to teach all day. I was exhausted from all the travel and borderline stressful journey yesterday, so I had no qualms about hanging in and doing some laundry.
Ryan didn’t really want me to go out on my own because of the massive shock that would be to the village. Two umuzungo there at one time. Especially one with a beard and long hair, it would be like the world is ending.
So I hung tight and read some books while hand washing my laundry. But then a small child peaked his head around Ryan’s wall with a look of shock on his face. “Maraho naza” I said with a big smile. He came over shook my hand and then stood there, staring at me as I picked some flies out of the laundry tub and dowsed my grungy running socks. This went on for about 15 minutes, him looking me over from head to toe. I would look back and smile, give a thumbs up, and a wave. Total and complete language barrier at it’s finest for me, and major shock value for this child who had no idea what a caveman looking like white dude was doing washing laundry at Lion’s home.
He toddled off just before Ryan came back for lunch. We had traditional Rwandan food, Amendazi, which I would compare to a cubed, stale, donut. Sambusa, fried pastry pockets filled with either vegetable or spicy meat. And some of the freshest fruit I have ever had in my entire life.
I told Ryan about my encounter and he laughed it off saying I’d be experiencing a whole bunch of that. When he first arrived, he equated walking down the street to parting the red sea, just trying to move through all the curious children.
When he went back to teach, more and more kids began to show up. Rumor was spreading that a second umuzungo was in the village, but my formal introduction would have to wait until tomorrow.
When Ryan returned for dinner that night, we planned for a feast in his kitchen.
Imagine having no appliances. Ryan’s cooking style is innovative, adaptive, and dependent on using the resources around him. His sink he made from a drum of water that he poked a hole in with a hot nail, and sealed a faucet to with pieces of chewing gum. That’s the unfiltered water that is filled with worms, bacteria, parasites, and pretty much anything that would make your life miserable from drinking it straight. No refigerators, microwaves, stoves, magic bullets, nothing.
And I don’t bring this up to make you feel bad about having these things.
No, that’s ridiculous. Could we live with less, yes of course. But we are just fortunate to have been born in this country where we are all able to work hard to purchase and own these luxuries which are often taken for granted.
If we continued on a tour of Ryan’s home you will find a living room, a bedroom, a makeshift punching bag, a walk in closet, a shower set up (a bucket of water and a basin), and a latrine for the bathroom.
So we continued preparing dinner with fresh local foods. Meat was a rarity and was only available when the village decided to slaughter a cow, which is a really big deal. And even then, all of it had to be eaten quickly, because again, no refrigerators. We cooked over a fire, hands black from placing the coals, then we feasted on banana pancakes, potatoes, an indian dish called shak shuka, roasted peanuts, more beer, and cheersed it down with our anti-malarial medication.
We ate like kings that night, all under the dim light of a candle, because we’re romantic like that. Just kidding power outages are a normal occurrence.
We awoke at Sunrise the next morning to run, and little did I know, I would meet more of the village than I ever expected. We headed out with one of the other local teachers, Kerry. The sun was barely up in the sky and the humidity was already nagging at me, smothering us with each stride as we glided up and down the rolling hills. After three miles out, we turned around to complete the three miles back in. And that’s when something magical began to happen.
As we were running back into Kizibere, the students were also walking that direction to get to school on time.
You know how your parents will always joke with you about having to walk to school uphill both ways in a blizzard for miles and miles? Well, these kids actually do that. Except in 90 degree heat and humidity instead of a blizzard.
As they saw us running, some began to join in. They would run for as hard and long as they could and then drop back. As soon as they did, another group of students would be around us. And when I looked at their faces, they were smiling and laughing with an uncontrolled amount of joy. The childish innocence and playfulness about that moment is one of the best and pure memories I have in my entire life. When we were surrounded by students of all ages, I felt that same, powerful feeling I experienced in Nicaragua a few years ago.
This was Ryan’s daily life. He had been so integrated and accepted by this community, it was beginning to be a second family. Everything was natural and organic, it flowed with an indescribable energy. Those who do good, are rewarded with a gift far greater than any tangible thing or monetary compensation. They are rewarded with a special kind of love and acceptance that transcends all others.
So what exactly is it that Ryan does in Rwanda. By definition of the Peace Corps he: Teaches English and literature to secondary students which are comparable to freshman in your school. And then also teaches social and general studies to what would be juniors and seniors.
Ryan does all of that and more though. The amount of students he teaches is actually over 300. He does not just teach the minimum amount and then return home to stay inside his room with his headphones in, wishing for a dunkin donuts coffee and a cable TV. He strives to be outside his comfort zone each and everyday. He is as much a part of this community as it is a part of him. And on his own time, he embeds himself into the very core of all that community stands for. Not because it is required to, but because he cares.
Scattered around his home, you’ll find in depth lesson plans, beautifully colored posters for classrooms, and thoughtfully graded papers based on effort not correctness. He does not just write on a board having students copy down english translations and grammar rules. He engages them and makes going to school something they look forward to each and everyday.
He teaches about human rights, politics, American literature, and current events. Each one of his students is challenged to learn at a higher level and receive a better education than they ever would have received, all because of Ryan’s extra effort.
Outside the classroom, he does even more. He plays music at church, teaches children guitar both in the village and at an NGO that helps children without parents in a town not far away.
He volunteers extra time to provide weekly English lessons to nuns and doctors so they can be more efficient and successful.
Being a professional athlete is also part of his repertoire, participating in the teachers versus doctors volleyball game in front of 2000 screaming fans.
He has started a football club whilst writing proposals to the village chief to build a new football field. Connecting to his students beyond the classroom has earned him respect and friendship. His enthusiasm and participation in the community have created an environment that allows his students and also other villagers to thrive.
When I saw all that Ryan has done and is doing, I wasn’t surprised. His new name of Lion suits him well in regards to the size of his heart. I could feel the amount of love and passion emanating from him as he spoke about his efforts to make his village a better place than how he found it. Because it is HIS village now. This is HIS community. Ryan is doing something, actually many things that we can all learn from.
After hearing all of Ryan’s successes and contributions it did not surprise me at all when he had one request for me. He had been communicating with Vanessa Barros, a teacher at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, NH, about a letter exchange program between his students in Rwanda and some of hers back in America. The big problem, is that getting mail to and from Rwanda isn’t always reliable. The likelihood of dozens and dozens of letters making it to America unscathed was extremely improbable. Luckily enough, I was passing through at just the right time.
See I’m nobody in this story. I’m quite literally the messenger. Ryan and Vanessa have worked incredibly hard to make this letter exchange happen.
For two months, I traveled with 120 letters across Africa, up Mt. Kilimanjaro, through Tanzania, South Africa, and then over 7000 miles to New Hampshire.
Why? Because it’s important. It’s an incredibly unique opportunity to be able to develop a relationship with these kids. They worked incredibly hard to use the English they have learned to write to American students. And were over the moon to see those letters go in my bag, knowing that their hard work would be read and appreciated.
I messaged with Vanessa after receiving the letters from Ryan and we agreed that it would be very impactful for me to hand deliver the letters to her class. A dirty hippy with long hair and a beard bringing in a tattered package from Rwanda leaves quite an impact on kids these days. Vanessa knew I had a public speaking background and asked if I could speak to her class about my experience. And more importantly, help expose them to a better view of the world, one that the United States is not the center of.
We need to make a giant leap towards globalization as fellow citizens of the world. Countries are just lines drawn on a map. However, those invented borders have created more division than could ever be imagined. But as Americans we have an important role to play in what we can offer the world.
But sometimes it’s more important to recognize what the world can offer us if we open ourselves up to it, and transcend the bubble we place ourselves in back home.
And that was the subject of my speech. Making an effort to do better job at understanding and appreciating cultures individually, so that we can make humanity better as a whole.
Except the speech wasn’t just to Vanessa’s class, it ended up being to hundreds of students on the beautiful stage of Stockbridge Theatre. And I’ve done it three times now.
It is an absolute privilege to share Ryan’s story with these kids. To have them approach me after, crying saying how amazing this is, how it’s given them direction in their own lives. To receive emails from young kids, our future, saying how inspired they are to make the world a better place.
It would be an understatement to say how proud I am of Ryan. As I stood on stage in front of those audiences, I thought of how lucky I am to be a small part of Ryan’s amazing journey. In a world full of darkness and evil, Ryan reminds me that there is still hope for humanity.