There and back again
I know. It’s been a while. Almost three months, in fact, since my last post (my next job probably won’t be professional blogger). Sincere apologies for the long absence. So, what have I been up to? Well, as some of you already know and as the last part of this post’s title reveals I finished my volunteer assignment and have returned from Rwanda. Suffice it to say that it was quite the ride and I would not want to miss it for the world. I am grateful to the people at AfID for giving me this opportunity and to the people at Ahazaza for having me. As challenging and difficult as it was at times it was a truly formative experience and I encourage anyone to consider volunteering for a change; may it be with AfID where the emphasis is on training in the area of financial management or maybe with another organization pursuing a capacity-building approach to development that caters more to your area of expertise.
My assignment was part of AfID’s ongoing strategy to build the financial management capacity and long-term sustainability of small community-based organisations across developing countries. Volunteers like me aim to provide impartial, non-judgemental one-to-one support; coaching local people on all matters relating to the organisations’ finances. Naturally, when coming to Ahazaza I did not expect to change the world. Capacity building – may it be in financial management or in some other area – usually takes a lot of time, progress can be slow and setbacks should be expected. But it is a sensible and dignified path to sustainable development (with emphasis on ‘sustainable’). It was my first time as a volunteer and my first time to Africa so it was difficult to imagine beforehand what it’s going to be like. Generally speaking, there were (and still are) a lot of things to do on the administrative side of the school (including but not limited to financial management) but only few people to deal with them. In retrospect, I feel that Ahazaza has benefited from my placement – as have I – and I hope it continues to be a standard-setting school that offers high-quality education to children of all backgrounds.
As for the title of this post – “On the beach, in the field, and back again” – I started with the last part; so what about the other two?!
In the field
There’s an entertaining website called Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. Basically, it’s aid workers making fun of each other. Given the many frustrating realities of work in the development sector one can only imagine that it’s good and necessary to have some fun from time to time… unless you want to lose your sanity or succumb to cynicism. Now, I was a volunteer, not a professional aid worker, and dipped my toes in the development sector only for a couple of months but in some respects volunteers tend to fit the bill, too. For instance, one particular trait observable in professional aid workers and volunteers alike seems to be to trump each other with the toughest field experience. Generally speaking, having been “in the field” often means that someone worked for months or years on a development project or was part of a humanitarian crisis relief mission in some part of the world that was considered dangerous, challenging, hazardous, unsettling, traumatizing, etc. and/or was hit by some natural disaster. Thus, having been in the field implies that one has dealt with some serious circumstances and has endured some serious hardship. So, here’s me, in Rwanda, in the field. Literally.
When you go traveling in East Africa make sure you include Rwanda in your itinerary and visit the gorillas in the Virunga mountains in the north and go hiking in the Nyungwe rainforest in the southwest. On the way to the latter you can make a stop in Muhanga where I was based and get your own little field experience. The pictures above were taken on an excursion that was made possible by a lovely local NGO called Azizi Life. Azizi works together with a women cooperative and recently started to organize day trips to experience regular Rwandans rural living and working conditions (it’s for aid workers and volunteers only at the moment but that is supposed to change soon).
On a more serious note, being in the field can come with some real dangers. There were two grenade attacks in Rwanda in January, one of which was at a busy corner of the main road running through Muhanga city centre, not far from Ahazaza Indepedent School. Several people were injured, some of them seriously. Rwanda is often cited as a success story of development among African nations and with some good reason, but only time can tell how much of a success story Rwanda really is. These attacks, which have been occurring regularly over the last couple of years, are a reminder that the tiny nation of Rwanda still faces serious challenges to its current state of peace and stability due to its troubled history full of civil war and genocide and due to it being part of one of the world’s most problematic regions. As for me, I never felt unsafe while being in Rwanda and consider it a safe place for travel; just stay informed on any security issues and keep your wits about you like you would at any new, unfamiliar place.
On the beach
After this more serious paragraph let me end this post on a lighter note. As a final destination to my time in Africa I went to Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous tropical island off the coast of Tanzania, to relax and experience a part of East Africa that is in some respects the complete opposite of the hilly, land-locked country of Rwanda. Zanzibar, or more correctly Unguja, is the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago, has fine beaches and – true to its tropical location – is really hot. Zanzibar is almost entirely a Muslim country and early morning wake-up calls from the nearby mosque would ensure an early start to the day. And Zanzibaris are marvelously friendly, welcoming people so make sure to put Zanzibar on your East Africa travel itinerary, too.
Zanzibar has also excellent conditions for kitesurfing. It is an extreme sport and hence by definition a little crazy … and fun! I’m just getting started with it but it’s seriously addictive once you get up on the board and start to ride (check out this aptly named video of some professional kitesurfers if you’re interested: “F.One Addikt 2”). If you go give it a try I strongly recommend doing a course. Otherwise you may end up seriously hurting yourself and/or others. I booked some training sessions with an IKO-certified kiteboarding instructor and they were totally worth it as you pick it up much faster, too. A cool place to stay by the way is the Red Monkey Lodge in Jambiani, on Zanzibar’s east coast, named after red colobus monkeys that live just next door and sometimes venture into the lodge.
Off to new endeavours
So, what’s next for me? That’s a good question. I haven’t made up my mind but ideally something that allows for plenty of time to go kitesurfing.