Friday, June 19, 2009

Teaching Workshop with Kids, Soccer with Locals, AIDS Tests in Africa, Regional Politics, and Being Called ‘Mazunga’

Writing in the hostel before supper about my day and the things that I’ve forgotten to write since day 1.

Today was productive. We went back to the school we visited on Friday where we taught the teachers how to work the laptops. We arrived at the school early today and had the children’s eyes flock to us at the speed of light. They were excited to see us and greeted us with ‘Good morning, visitors.’ The teacher told us that this was the first time the kids had used their computers in class and that she didn’t want to use the ‘tops until after the end of the lesson.

However, the two hours we were there proved to be effective and the teacher, to her surprise, saw the value of the laptops after we used the wireless-free Wikipedia application, where the students answered how many people reside in Kigali, who the president of Rwanda is, and even how the RPT (Rwandan Patriotic Front) stopped the genocide. As in every classroom setting, (ours was grade 6, although you can tell some of the kids were a lot older because they were either drop-outs or never went to school to begin with) there are slow kids, bright kids, and absolute geniuses. Kigali is no different. We walked into Social Studies class and despite initial obstacles of teaching the children computer skills, we used write to establish what the class knew about city trademarks and the wikipedia maps of Africa and Rwandan facts. By the end of the two hours, it was very rewarding seeing the kids using something so foreign to them and being so interactive with the teacher and eager to learn.

Apart from learning, the kids were mesmerized with my hair and origin. In their absolute glee, they kept calling me ‘mazunga,’ which, from conflicting translations, either means ‘white person’ or ‘rich person’. Either way, in their eyes, and relatively speaking, I was both.

Last week I went with a friend to the Kigali Hospital because she wanted an AIDS test after receiving some devastating news from home.

Continued June 18, 3 PM, from Nairobi Airport waiting for Jo’burg flight.

Although the experience was foreign to me until that moment and continues to be so because I was not the subject, it altered, moved, and surprised me; I got to witness the stigma associated with AIDS in Africa—from a Caucasian perspective. Getting to the hospital was easy; it is located near the US embassy and, like a puzzle piece out of place, despite its relative proximity to other institutional buildings, it is surrounded by concrete homes ranging from humble dwellings with people peeling banana stock, to big, five-room homes that probably house diplomats, to affordable apartment buildings that foreigners—such as the OLPC ‘core’ team—rent out. As soon as we stepped out of the car that took us to the hospital, we were starkly greeted with the shocking vision of people gathered around a woman lying on the floor on her side. Upon closer examination once we approached the entrance that her extended body blocked, we saw she was bleeding from the head, face, legs, and side. The cause was most probably not internal, as I saw cuts on her flesh resembling trauma that could have been a fall. After a few minutes, she was tended to in not a hurry; it was surprising.

Registering with the hospital was not hard, and despite the English barrier, most administrative officials at the hospital did speak in a communicable English tongue. Their records were all digitized, although when we went to pay for $120 USD for the pap smear, HIV test, and Heb B and C blood tests, we could not pay in credit; only cash. Logistically speaking, the waits were hours shorter than in any Western hospital I’ve ever been to and the entire bureaucratic system was very efficient. The hard part was the doctor and the stereotypes we encountered from angry and judging eyes.

To have AIDS in Africa is common. To treat AIDS in Africa with Western medicine is taboo. To be a foreigner getting an AIDS test in Africa—or at least Kigali—was traumatizing.

I followed her into the doctor’s office, an area where patients open the door to see the professional; our stay was interrupted more than once due to this flexible and informal practice, something that made me feel more comfortable than insulted. He spoke good English and his big belly welcomed us into this unknown, foreign sphere that decides the fate of many in a single day.

He made chit-chat, even asked me if I was Polish because after looking at my name, he realized it was similar to one he had seen a few hours earlier, a fellow Slav. Then he asked why my friend was there; at that point the skies shifted and we were treated like prisoners of our own imagination.

“You think you have AIDS,” he asked in an air of disbelief mixed with anger.

“I don’t know, I might,” she said, tears streaming down her face at the realization that she is expressing her deepest fear to a complete stranger. She later told me how offended she felt at the doctor’s demeanor towards her, as if she knew nothing about the epidemic and how dare she, a privileged white girl, think she could possibly have AIDS, a disease that kills so many of his patients each year, and mock the severity of the problem.

He then asked her to un-button her shirt and unzip her pants as his hand moved below her waist in examination for protruding elements under her skin, a move that exacerbated her anxiety.

“Stop crying,” he said, this time a little more sensitive to her genuine fear. “Does your vagina feel different than normal?”

She shook her head.

“Unusual discharge, stomach pains, headache?”

The answer was no, no, and no.

“Why do you want to know now,” he asked, “It is not imperative to find out immediately.”

“But in the West,” I shot back in her powerless defense, “We are told that early diagnosis is key—you should know immediately so you can go on anti-virals and so that you don’t infect anybody else.”

He looked at me as though I knew too much or I was just regurgitating propaganda—I couldn’t tell. “Are you prepared for the result, whether it be yes or no?”

“Yes,” she said after a simultaneously mental and verbal hesitation.

Go to the room down the hall, he directed, and you will get a test. Then go to the lab to get your pap smear.

And so we did.

The HIV test, which signifies a positive with two lines instead of one, consisted of a single prick of the finger. The results, a relieving single vertical line, were instantaneous. My intrusive peak into the strip beside hers proved also to be good news, but with millions of people on the continent infected and infecting their offspring, the sigh of relief was relative.

The pap smear was, surprisingly, a better—and the results equally as pleasing—experience, as two male gynecologists—a daunting reality before the calmness of one of their voice’s penetrated our fears—administered the test in haste, professionalism, and a sophisticated tool.

“I came here completely inexperienced with African men, and I walk away with not one but two, having seen me vagina,” she said in jest. We both laughed the experience away.

Rwandans are very friendly, talkative, and giving people. The sight of foreigners attracts them to act compassionately, either because they are naturally good people with big hearts or because they want to project a united Rwanda, a loving Rwanda, to the rest of the world. In my opinion, it is both. After the workshop with the children on Monday, I rallied troops—the Corps members who came from their school early (my team), the ones who were feeling sick and took the day off, and those who simply didn’t bother with the activity—to play soccer. Where would we play, we asked the receptionist. At the national stadium across the street, she replied. Yes, for free, yes, now. The walk there was hot. Upon arrival, we realized the stadium was being utilized for ‘Armed Forces, Sports, and Culture’ week—yes, we too saw the interdisciplinary nature of each separate department .

There would be a game played there after President Kagame, followed by a government Minister, spoke at length about one people, one country--a united Rwanda that wants regional integration with the rest of Africa. In addition to the numerous genocide memorials across the country and educating youth about the true history of the genocide, the country is actively pursuing reconciliation as a people, both in media, in education, and in the pursuit of justice (thinking of you, Pam). Although only 18 out of 81 people charged as the principal engineers of the genocide have been indicted in Arusha, the Truth Commission—‘Rwanda-Never Again’—and the transparency of the last two decades in the country, at least to me, seem to be the cohesive agents of unity needed to bring about healing and a lasting peace. But by an American NGO Director living in Rwanda, I am told Hutu’s and Tutsi’s still avoid each other and the tensions—this time from the efforts to bring about a systematic obliteration of a people—simmer beneath passionate and vehement speeches of national pride.

After getting a nut seller dressed in drabs to direct us to a vacant field and buying his good as a show of gratitude, we approached a group of 30 locals playing soccer with a decent ball that could use pumping. Whether it was the buoyancy of our newly purchased soccer ball (thanks Eli!) or the fact that we were courageous enough to find the hidden field solely for the love of the game that charmed the locals into letting us play, play we did. For three hours.

Impressed with the skill, health, athletic ability and warmth of the men and dripping in sweat and covered in red earth, we retreated back to the stadium to watch Uganda play against Rwanda, where I watched a young boy who was intrigued by me pick his bare foot with a safety pin. Although he was probably a well-behaved orphan who never stole and who was probably not a foot soldier for an orphan-keeper who, in many developing countries uses the innocence of children to distract foreigners and steal from them, I am shamed to admit that I kept checking my camera to be where I left it.

On Tuesday, we had another tech session at KIST, where we discussed access points (A.K.A. routers or linksys) and mesh network (the network that connects five XO’s without a server or access points) capabilities. But before that, we were told by one of the OLPC core members that after visiting some blogs and overhearing team discussions, he wanted to dispel rumors that the OLPC Corps are salesmen and ‘guinea pigs.’ Instead, he reassured, we were chosen because we are a talented and conscientious group of students who are here to network and help children who don’t have access to technology.

“You also aren’t here to sell these laptops to governments, although government participation is key for the sustainability of your individual projects,” he continued.

“But isn’t that exactly what Negroponte said we are here to do,” asked Ian, an evolutionary biologist by philosophy going to Uganda to work alongside his mother, the Director of an NGO.

“Well, yes, I guess,” the core member replied, a little flushed and speechless. “But that’s not the case.”

As you can imagine, we moved faster than lightning from that topic and onto OLPC News, the independent watchdog of the OLPC organization. We were told that we might be interested in posting our summer experiences—critical or not—on the official OLPC page so that our words are not ‘manipulated’ on the omnipresent world-wide-web.

“But we are still encouraged to post—uncensored—on our blogs, right,” I shouted from the audience. Of course, I was told.

Random facts: The clubs in Kigali are few, but the music seductively addictive, the locals beautiful and warm. I am repeatedly told (Skiiills) the best music and nightlife is in Nigeria, and I learn to believe it. Rwandan tea is heavenly. A mixture of whole cream and the local herbs, it is a light and comforting way to begin your day. There are no McDonalds’ in Rwanda; capitalism’s best trick has proved literally invisible in the heart of Africa. One of the Ghanaian team members arranged for a church service at our hostel after trying to convince, or fundamentally-indoctrinate in John’s words, John that there is a God, and his name is Jesus Christ.

One of the most special people I met in Kigali—all of whom it was emotional to leave this morning and last night—is Eddy Mintela, a bright Congolese man whose grandfather was President of then-Zaire and who wishes to follow in his footsteps to be a leader for the people. My hopeful instinct tells me that in 20 years, he will be the Democratic Republic of Congo’s head of state and in 40 years a living legend. Although never finished, we began a fascinating conversation about the history of the one of the most volatile and war-torn states on the continent, after which I learned of the C.I.A. inextricable link to the instability of the country and the region. By replacing one bad dictator (NAME) with a democratically-elected and charismatic (NAME) Kabila, who years after the coup turned into a shadow of his former self because of his nationalistic tendencies, the CIA was instrumental in leaving Kabila no choice but to give ‘a call to arms’ to the Congolese people in order to fend off troops from neighboring Uganda and Rwanda, who wanted to depose Kabila after he had them thrown from his country following his inauguration because he accused them of pillaging the country. As a result, thousands of children were trained as killers and whose bodies are today either scattered around rural Congo or drifting aimlessly in search of food and shelter, forever changed. Eddy’s groups XO project is aimed at improving the mental health of these children and turning them into future leaders. This is the same man who taught himself English and won the national essay competition on development; the same man who, despite his brilliance, cannot attend post secondary in the US or Canada because he the African educational system from which he graduated is so unaligned to Western standards that there is no possibility of a transfer of credits of course equivalency.

We have about one hour until we arrive in Jo’burg and the tangerine sunset out of my cabin window has just elicited a split-second lag in the response, “that’s beautiful.” My computer battery is at 16% and I don’t know when I’ll have internet connection to post. A few things that have went wrong in regards to our deployment: the teachers in Kliptown, or maybe Soweto as a whole, are on strike. We have had no formal communication with the school since three weeks ago and the instability of the consistency of life—and education—in Africa may jeopardize our plans, but only momentarily. More of a pressing concern at this point is the lack of accommodation for the rest of the trip in Soweto, including tonight. After offering us lodging at a local woman’s house, the Director of our NGO has abruptly pulled that invitation and instead suggested we stay at a hostel nearby. We will most likely surely rent a car tomorrow morning and look for apartments before spending the rest of our weekend talking deployment, making lesson plans, and hopefully visiting beasts at the renowned Kruger National Park, where two of my team-mates, Anastasia and John, plan to have a ceremonial wedding.

Coming to this unknown continent has enriched my mind and ignited my senses. This is a continent rich in history, littered with death heroes and stories on imperial conquest. It is a continent marred with prejudice yet cleansed with the resiliency and self-sustenance of the people. This is Africa.


  1. Olesia,

    Wow, so OLPC News got a shout out? Very cool!

    But lest there be confusion, I have a standing invitation for any OLPCoprs team to Guest Post on OLPC News - your own post, in your own words, so you can reach our readership directly. It can be a republishing of your blog post or original content. In fct, about 1/3 of OLPC News entries are Guest Posts these days.

  2. I'm glad to hear that the wikipedia slice we put together is useful.

    But I'd like to point out that the "more than 50% of the continent infected and infecting their offspring" is flat out wrong. Looking up statistics online, Rwanda's HIV rate appears to be in the 5-15% range. The whole continent has more than 900 million people, and yet Wikipedia says the total number of people with HIV/AIDS in the *world* is estimated at 33 million. Assuming 70% of those are in Africa that puts the overall fraction at 23 out of 900 million, or 2.5%.

    The generalization of your experiences as descriptive of an entire continent also comes off as dismissive of how very different all the parts are: HIV infection rates, for example, vary from soaring rates of 30-50% in Swaziland and Lesotho to very low rates of 1-2% in Senegal and Niger. Binyavanga Wainaina criticized this type of "Africa" generalization, among other things, in his essay "How to Write about Africa" (a good read):

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. thanks for the correction...i try to post immediately after experiences and in doing so, i sometimes--as u have aptly pointed out--anaccuratey represent facts. although this is not a foul-proof authority on aids and africa facts and is instead a subjective documentation of my thoughts, i realize it is being viewed by many people and is a ligitaimate source of information that must reflect reality. so thanks---keep up the criticisms and ill make the necessary corrections.