Hello to all, my name is Anika Utke. I am an eighteen year old American and the newest addition to the Gorilla Highlands team.
My life one year ago is unrecognizable from my life today. I was a kid in high school that had never been out of the country before and was spending countless nights prioritising an endless stream of mundane assignments over sleep. Then I decided to take a gap year through the organisation Carpe Diem Education and everything changed. I found myself leaving my city of Seattle, Washington and spending three months in Southeast Asia, exploring ancient ruins, living with hill tribe villages and Buddhist monks, getting bitten by horses, and so much more. Now, I am on my second semester of my gap year, this time traveling on my own as I volunteer at the Gorilla Highlands in photography, video, and basically whatever other wacky stuff they command.
Growing up in the Western world, Africa was never much of a consideration. I had been spoon fed images of naked people on dusty roads, sad, starving children, and an infrastructure that consists only of shoddy mud huts. Despite Africa being a continent composed of fifty four individual countries, this image always seemed to be a synonymous symbol for the entirety of Africa. So, when I arrived in Rwanda at the Kigali International Airport, I didn’t know what to expect. All I really knew about Rwanda was that there was a genocide decades ago, but since the only genocide American schools really focus on is The Holocaust, the extent of my knowledge was based upon the one time in class that we watched the movie, ‘Hotel Rwanda’.
As I sat in the plane, questions ran through my mind as my uncertainty grew.
“Will I be on a mat on the floor instead of a bed?”
“Am I going to get malaria?”
“Or worse, am I going to have to use a squat toilet?”
In the time that I have been in Kigali, these questions seem ridiculous now. (The answers are all no, by the way.) Luckily, in the two days I have been here, I am clearly now an expert on all things Rwanda, so who better to deliver some first impressions than an Expert Africa Amateur…
1. On the last Saturday of the month, the community comes together and bonds while working on service projects. Not only is this great when you’re recovering from jet lag, as the entire city is shut down until noon, but it also shows how Rwandans place a huge emphasis on community.
2. Speaking of community, if you’re invited to go to church, even if you aren’t religious, you should go. That’s what I did on my second morning in the city at the Christian Life Assembly. It’s just a cool experience being surrounded by what could literally be considered a giant concert and feeling a tangible energy rolling off the people in waves.
3. The hills are aliiiiiive…because Rwanda has endless hills. The Hotel des Mille Collines, the actual hotel Rwanda, is literally named after Rwanda having one thousand hills. But these hills make the city gorgeous when you view it from high places, especially at night when the city comes alive with lights.
4. Colours, colours, colours. It’s everywhere. From the Cheetoh dust orange dirt roads outside of the main city, the bright, vibrant patterns of women’s clothing, and the colorful architecture, there is always something to look at.
5. Rwandans like to call potatoes ‘Irish’. I think this is adorable and we should all do this.
6. While visiting the museum devoted to the 1994 genocide against Tutsis and moderate Hutus and other genocides around the world, I found it very informative, but I especially appreciated how it was also oriented towards the future and what Rwanda is doing now. There are many peace initiatives and educational programs to engage the youth and help them understand what happened and how this can be prevented in the future as well as just an overall statement of ‘moving forward, coming together, and being at peace rather than in a constant state of vengeance and tension’. I appreciate this and it makes it easy to see how Rwanda is one of the ten safest countries in Africa.
7. A lot of Rwanda’s safety is due to its people being more disciplined. This makes the crime rate low and allows you to walk around at night safely, but the night life is also tamer. I was told that Uganda is where to go for that…
8. This discipline also makes it so that Rwanda is very ‘by the book’ in terms of rules. They care a lot about the story they are projecting and want to show the world the positives of Rwanda, such as their growing tech industry. As many people only know Rwanda for the genocide, and thusly are unsure of its development or safety levels, this is understandable.
9. It’s really fun to just take a walk or go for a drive and watch the people around you. There is so much life and everyone comes from a different story and background. The people are very friendly and dynamic, and many speak at least a little bit of English, so communicating with locals isn’t very hard.
Tomorrow I head to Lake Bunyonyi to complete the Learn from Africa orientation and begin my volunteering with the Gorilla Highlands, but I look forward to the opportunities I will have to return to Rwanda. It is my first taste of Africa and though I had no idea what to expect, I was not disappointed. Rwanda is full of beauty, history, and yes, hills, but foremost it is full of life.
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