Friday, September 30, 2016

You Know What They Say About First Impressions

Gasarenda. My home until November
Produced and edited by: Austin Greene

I'll make my introduction quick. My name is Austin Greene and I was sent to Rwanda by the E.W. Scripps Institute for International Journalism at Ohio University. I grew up in Smithfield, Ohio, a small town of around 800 people. Life was simple in those days (i.e. a month ago), and I lived it just like any other average guy. You can seriously just imagine your version of "Average Joe" and it'll get you
close enough. What's worth mentioning is that before August, I had never traveled outside of the United States aside from a short little trip into Canada with my grandfather.

Most people who travel take vacations to Europe, Australia or tourist traps in Mexico or South America. Once their feet are wet, they move on to harder places like Asia. The seasoned vets go on to what we call the developing world.

OK, I'm making all of that up, but it's how I imagined it. My first real international experience is taking place in Eastern Africa.

Most people in America only really know Rwanda for the violent genocide in 1994. The genocide was depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda. If that's all you know of the country, your first impression would utterly surprise you.

Rwanda as a whole has to be one of the safest places I've ever visited. The people are very cordial, quiet and reserved. Aside from that, there are soldiers armed with AK-47s on the streets of most populated areas. For going through one of the bloodiest events in history (over 800,000 people were killed in only 100 days), the country seems to have stabilized and is moving forward steadily.

When I was interviewed for this internship, I was asked why I wanted to come to Africa. Race issues and immigration are huge topics in American journalism. It would be very difficult for me to cover those issues fairly if I've never been a racial minority or a foreigner. I hoped that by coming here, I would be able to better relate to those in that position in America.

I'm probably going to be able to relate better to the Kardashians after this.

Check out those fake, 2-dollar Ray-Bans
Gasarenda is a small town in Nyamagabe District. There's not much there aside from a few shops and a market, but there a ton of people there. I can't find any official statistics for the population, but if you find them you can add one more to that number.

Very few white people, muzungus as they say around these parts, ever come to Gasarenda. It is on the way to one of the most popular tourist destinations, Nyungwe National Forest, so I'd imagine that a lot of foreigners pass through at least. However, they wouldn't have much of a reason to stop.

"Good morning!" excited little voices say to me every time I leave my house. These kids have seen me every day for a month by now, and they're still fascinated just at the sight of me. Plus, it's usually 9 o'clock at night when they wish me a good morning.

The kids follow me everywhere I go. When I get on the bus, they stand next to my window and stare. When I'm working in the office in town, they stand in the doorway and stare. Sometimes they ask for spare change.
"I think he's a ghost."

"Give me my money," they'll say.

 It was very surreal and flattering at first. Then it started to creep me out. Now I'm just used to it.

The older folks smile and wave. I feel like I get preferential treatment on the bus, at restaurants and in the market. That should be expected though, Nyamagabe District and the Southern Province are the poorest areas in all of Rwanda. I obviously come from a more privileged background.

It's hard for me to think that way sometimes. I lived in a trailer when I was young and we received government assistance. 86 percent of Rwandans live off of local agriculture. Most of them rely on about 500 dollars per year.

I knew before I came here that I was going to see some things that were hard to see. Children walk around the street in tattered clothes and no shoes. Some of them look like they haven't eaten in a week. There are two beggars at the bus station in Nyamagabe that don't have eyes. I've spent a lot of time at the hospital in Huye, and some of the conditions that I've seen children in are very heartbreaking.

Luckily, there are plenty of things going on in Rwanda to cheer me and everyone else up. I've seen two different species of monkeys in the wild. The black-and-white colobus monkeys in Nyungwe National Forest moved in a group so large that I couldn't even count them. Vervet monkeys are all over the place in Huye, and you can even get up close and feed them out of your hand (I don't think you're supposed to do that though).

Despite the circumstances, Rwanda doesn't seem to be all that cynical. It is one of the fastest developing countries in the world, and the government hopes that Rwanda can achieve "middle-income" status by 2020. The people are very welcoming, and living here can really only be described as easy. I would never have thought it, but Rwanda is turning out to be the perfect place for my first true international experience.

There's so much more coming soon from me,
but check out these pictures in the meantime!

A vervet monkey in Huye
Black-and-white colobus monkeys in Nyungwe National Forest
I wish I knew how to do this.

Prayer at Ruciranyari, just outside of Gasarenda

The "Canopy Walk" at Nyungwe National Forest
The crowded streets of Gasarenda

A typical Rwandan shop

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