At this exact time last year, I had just finished up my Master's Thesis on U.S. and Rwandan Relations and was getting ready to hop on a flight to Kigali, Rwanda to volunteer with Humanity Unified.
I spent the following week working with a small team to interview and document the women participating in Humanity Unified's Farming Cooperative Program. This trip was incredibly meaningful for several reasons, and these reasons can be applied into any consideration of getting involved with volunteer travel.
Effective Altruism: While I had done 'volunteer' type trips before, it was great to be working with people who making a direct impact by engaging directly with Rwandans, through Rwandans. What I mean by that is, Humanity Unified works through a location organization called Aspire Rwanda. This organization is fully staffed by Rwandans and other Africans, and therefore know what works for them better than outsiders ever could. I have two examples of how this is reflected in their work. First, HU pays the salary of the sweetest man I have ever met, Innocent. He was born in Rwanda and is an educated Agronomist. He spends most of his time in the fields with the farmers teaching them sustainable and economical farming practices to get the best yields while still preserving the future of the lands. Second, the women who belong to the cooperative also have the opportunity to seek counseling and training on issues such as Gender Based Violence. As people have argued that these are Western imposed moral values, Aspire and HU work through another third party Rwandan organization who specialize in these workshops and consultations. I actually had the incredible opportunity to observe a Gender Based Violence and Marriage Equality workshop for all of the women and their husbands. This workshop was taught completely by men, and while to many of us in the Western world this would be sad and counterproductive, it was a way to get the other men to listen and to potentially create real change.
Purposeful Lodging: In the age of AirBnB, we have so many options for lodging when we travel. One of the BEST options in my opinion, is using your lodging fee for good! Through AirBnB I found out that I could stay in a spare room at an Art Gallery called Mama Rwanda. Not only would I live among the most colorful art for a week, but my lodging fee would go towards after school art programs for neighborhood children. Of course I immediately signed up! An added bonus was that my host was absolutely incredible, and every evening when I got home from the fields, he would be doing everything from setting the children up with paints, teaching them to drum and facilitating traditional dances. I most literally got to see exactly where my money was going, and there is no more rewarding nights sleep than that.
Respectful Tourism: Although I spent much of my time in the fields and in the homes of women right outside of Kigali, I wanted to see a few of the places I had read about as well. I had spent much of my grad school career studying Rwandan history and politics, from colonialism, to independence, to genocide, to it's current post-genocide society. I had devoured almost every book I could find and added to the literature with my own 90 pages of research. Therefore, seeing this place in real life, it's capital city turned from murder haven to booming metropolis, and to meet actual survivors of the 1994 genocide was completely surreal. On my first day in Kigali, I went to the Genocide Memorial Museum. To my surprise, my AirBnB host had never been and wanted to join me. He was only twenty years old and not yet alive during the genocide, so to him this was part of his history. I was internally a bit apprehensive because I knew this must be a heavy experience for him, but seeing it through his eyes as we wandered through the rooms was comforting as it was intense. It made me happy to see a young man learning his history, as not to repeat it. On my last night in Rwanda, he took me to Hôtel des Mille Collines (Hotel Rwanda) for a beautiful evening of cultural celebration. I'm sure many of you have seen the movie or heard of Hotel Rwanda, but it was at one time the sight of genocide struggles as the United Nations stationed themselves there. That evening, I sat outside with my friend under fairy lights, sipping Rwandan tea and listening to traditional and modern music with people from all over the country and the world. To imagine this transformation is to imagine the worst and best of humanity in one place, frozen in both history and in the current moment.