Rolling hills and luscious landscapes. Not the image that comes to mind when most Americans picture Africa. However, in the heart of the continent lies a little treasure named Rwanda. Women in vibrant skirts and children wrapped around their bodies, carry teetering jugs of water up narrow pathways. Little boys and girls laugh and smile as they kick a ball of yarn and sticks on the brown grass.
In a country that seems so far removed from the standards of American life, you will find the happiest people on Earth. My Alternative Service Break group of twenty from NC State traveled to Rwanda over Spring Break. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. We were met with kindness from every person we met, and were offered endless generosity from people who seemed to have nothing. Our purpose of the trip was to introduce engineering into the blossoming elementary school system in the country. I went in with the assumption I was going to be the one teaching, but boy did I realize I had so much to learn. The fifth grade children were curious and excited.
Our large group separated into five small ones and prepared workshops to present to the classrooms each night. Our days ended at 11:00 p.m and began at 6:00 in the morning. The food prepared for us was unbelievably rich and flavorful. The hotels we stayed at catered to our every need. At first I felt almost guilty for living in luxury adjacent to homes with mud roofs, but I quickly came to realize that air conditioning and WiFi do not directly correlate to happiness.
Each day as we drove to the rural villages, families would wave and the students would chase our buses. They wanted to learn. We worked with the students, making fabric buckets and shoes out of cardboard. Their resourceful minds crafted elaborate sandals and expertly woven buckets. At lunch break they taught us dances and we tried to sing with them until all our faces hurt from smiling and laughing. I was personally very excited to show the kids a true Southern treasure: The Cotton Eyed Joe.
In the afternoons after our work day we saw the sights. We visited the Genocide Memorial put in place after the 100 day genocide the country faced in 1994. The idea of remembrance of this event is so important to the nation. Peace and forgiveness resonate throughout every person. We saw monkeys and toured caves. We made banana beer and pottery.
I learned so much from the experience. I learned that material items do not matter when you have the people you care about around you. You can have just as much fun with a ball of sticks on a muddy field, as you can with the latest and greatest soccer ball and shining cleats.