Western in Rwanda for first time this summer

Ten Western Washington University students are in Gashora, Rwanda, this summer on a study abroad program.

The trip is led by Steven Vanderstaay, Western's vice provost for undergraduate education, and Kristi Tyran, an associate professor of management. Tim Costello, director of Western's Center for Service-Learning, also is on the trip.

During the summer course, which ends July 27, students are assisting faculty in establishing Western’s partnership with the Gashora Integrated Community Development Program, a non-governmental organization associated with a local woman’s cooperative and rural municipality. The group's first task will be to build rapport and trust with the local community, creating a positive and culturally respectful first impression while serving as emissaries of Western. Students also will study equitable and productive international development efforts, assist faculty in a community needs and resources assessment and pursue educational and service activities of their own design.

This is the first time Western faculty have taken students to Rwanda, and the summer promises to be a learning experience for everyone. Follow along on the group's blog, Building Bridges with Rwanda. Here's an excerpt from day two of the trip, posted on Tuesday:

Our dormitory is a cement building toward the back of the grounds.  In the morning, after taking cold showers, we get to see our surroundings in the light for the first time.

The lake which the hotel sits on, Lake Rumira, hides behind the leaves of banana trees in the gray morning. A cage with a baby monkey and his momma rests just outside of our dormitory, and we assume that the baby monkey was the animal scattering across our tin roofs during the night. We walk past the fields of pineapples, where pineapples pop up, one or two to a plant. We’re astounded; we thought pineapples got pulled out of the ground like carrots! We trot down the cobbled walkways, passing thatched-roof huts, and waving hello to hotel employees, “Muraho!”

After breakfast, eggs, cooked plantains, beans, pineapple, bananas, tree tomatoes, and sausage, (the usual), we head into Gashora to learn about current projects at the women’s cooperative, which Washington State University, and our buddies Taya and Cedric have worked on.

The dirt road looks much different in the daylight, and Jon realizes that his nighttime fear, the one about animals jumping out of holes in the road, is irrational. Big Dog meets us, wraps his arms around us, and says “Camera?” as he takes our cameras. We soon learn that he is quite the photographer.

We hear singing from a local Pentecostal church, a large building with an unfinished roof and unfinished walls. Children rest in windows and peer out at us. Big Dog rushes up to the church and snaps a photo before a woman shoos him away. “Nice.”

When we reach Covaga, the building is locked but we see colorful baskets through dusty windows. Cedric is one of the employees of Building Bridges with Rwanda (BBR: See side link) and has worked closely with Washington State University Students like Taya, on agricultural projects.

Currently in Rwanda, 80% of the population survives on subsistence farming of a few crops. Most meals in Gashora consist of only bananas, cassava (a local plant), and beans, and therefore, the community has many issues with malnutrition.

One project, a “kitchen garden,” is a circular, tiered garden that introduces more nutritious crops to Gashora. The top tier is carrots, the second tier is beets, the third tier is cabbage, and the bottom tier is amaranths (a plant from the spinach family). The kitchen garden is an attempt to teach the community how to cultivate a greater variety of plants to achieve better nutrition.

Taya gives the group a tour of the Eco-latrine. The interior of the latrine remains consistent with Rwandan culture, and this is merely a hole in the ground. However, the latrine is elevated above ground and has a compartment below it where waste is collected to later be used as fertilizer.