Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Twese Hamwe: How 15 Students Became One



At the end of the spring semester, advertisements for a summer seminar in Rwanda began showing up all over campus. For the next few weeks Dr. Carter Crockett, head of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) and the trip advisor, gave information sessions and Chapel announcements promoting the trip. The entire experience seemed unbelievable, so the night before the applications were due I sat on the floor of Bromley 105 coming up with three adjectives to describe myself. After a week Carter held interviews for the applicants. Although the two of us connected through a love of the developing world, I received an e-mail informing me that I was wait listed for the trip.

With a mission to make Summer 2014 worth every second, I began looking at an internship in Arlington, VA. A few nights later, while I was working on another summer application, I received another email from Carter, this time with more positive news. Someone had dropped out of the trip and he offered me the open position in the cohort. Now, the internship paid $15 an hour and I would be paying $5,000 for this trip, so obviously the choice was simple: I was going to Africa.

Prior to leaving the U.S. most of us met to discuss the culture and economics of Rwanda, and what we should expect. Walking into the room I knew two people closely and another three through the grapevine, but the rest were strangers and would probably have otherwise stayed that way to me.

A month later we met at Logan Airport, where Carter handed us course readers larger than my anatomy textbook. After our bags were checked we headed through security and began a 24-hour journey. After a grueling layover in Amsterdam and countless inflight movies, we landed in Kigali, Rwanda, and met Noella Shankuru, our program assistant. We piled our luggage into the bus and met our driver, Gaga (little did we know he would turn out to be the coolest guy in the country), and headed out for pizza.

The first week was spent getting our feet wet, which was overwhelming to say the least. As we got used to the moto-taxis and cold showers we also started settling into certain roles. Some of us were debaters while others were careful listeners, but one thing we began to notice was that we were all critical thinkers. When we would visit cooperatives, like a group of artisans working with Kate Spade, we asked the hard questions: how do you keep the culture preserved? how does this project empower rather than just support?

Usually, when people think about development they focus on its genuinely positive, beneficial actions. When we thought about development, we questioned the organization’s ethics and how they treat their local workers. Questions about how Americans made it to Rwanda surfaced, but not until we figured out the companies’ intentions. “We were constantly shown examples of Westerners who worked in Rwanda without understanding the culture and ended up hurting the Rwandese instead of helping,” said Natalie Assaad ’17.

As we became aware of how much each student in the group cared for the Rwandese, we began growing together, in class and during free time. Our first weekend was spent out west at Lake Kivu, the largest lake in Rwanda, or according to Josh Hill ’16, “about seven size units.” The trip was straightforward and had one rule: no homework, all play. And after a surprise hike through Bat Island (appropriately named) we had a pick-up game of futbol, with a ball made of contraband plastic bags, and made friends with a local primate.
Rwanda, the Land of a Thousand Hills
Upon returning to our hotel, we dove right back into articles on development theory and visits to hardworking organizations. We spent a day at a coffee farm and saw it processed from berry to beverage. The rest of the week was spent visiting tilapia farmers and groups building location apps for smartphones. But even though the days began to feel consuming, the nights were relaxing, because that’s when the group would be all together, not to mention we’d get a short nap in. We would all find some time to be together, whether it was during a FIFA game or over a 200,000 Rwf meal (divide by 690 and you’ll get a price estimate). While we might have gotten annoyed at times, we made up in a matter of minutes (see: Second Week Debacle between Anna Hadorn ’16 and Jesse Steele ’15).

After Dr. Ruth Melkonian joined us for morning ice cream we headed back to Kigali for our final week. Most of us (everyone except myself) were placed inside one of the organization we visited to get a better picture of how it worked. While Sarah Goss ’15 was able to do an accounting project for the company Acacia, some (Clint Broderick,’15, Nick Colleran,’16, Kara Fuller ’15 and Jamie Shore, ’17) weren’t as utilized, but did get the same experience as the normal interns.

Our last trip together took us west for a safari in Akagera Park, where the hotel came with an omelet bar, and a guard to keep away baboons. But even with the immmersion and course reading behind us, there was still one more assignment to be done before we left. During the second week Carter had introduced a project: create and pitch a business idea for Rwanda. To up the stakes he even invited some of the people from the companies we visited. No surprise: the teams that came together did incredible jobs, and, with 60 minutes before takeoff, the team made it to the airport to head back to the states.

To say we all took something away from this trip doesn’t adequately express what our time in Rwanda meant to us. Each member of the group has learned something new about development, about another culture, and about how they view international aid. Oh, we also got some new friends out of it. Watch out for the Fellowship of Twese Hamwe, coming to a campus near you!


Jesse Steele ’15 is a communication arts major focusing on journalism with a minor in kinesiology. After attending this seminar, he remained in Rwanda to intern for the rest of the summer with the International Justice Mission. 

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