THIS IS RWANDA

THIS IS RWANDA

I have to preface this post with a massive THANK YOU to the 50+ people who donated to my fundraiser, allowing this all to come to life. I introduced the opportunity on the blog in mid-March, and on May 19th, I boarded a plane bound for Rwanda with The Kula Project. You all raised just over $3000 in about eight weeks. While I’m still trying to wrap my head around that, I’m beyond grateful for the experience — and for the support. My time in Rwanda was difficult to put into words, but it was a challenge I gladly accepted.  I am thrilled to be able to share it with you, and I hope it leaves you feeling connected to these incredible people. Enjoy the stories from an absolutely gorgeous place in my heart, called Rwanda. 

Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.” — Anthony Bourdain

As I glance down at the quite permanent scar on the top of my left ankle, I’m reminded of  how I completely missed my target on the night that I decided to run through a fiery hoop on the beaches of Ko Phi Phi, Thailand.   My right knee adds to the collection with a bright white scar I obtained while waiting for a cab on the streets of Medellin, Colombia. My Dad hasn’t called me “Grace” my entire life for nothin’, guys. Scattered across the lower part of my calves are little white spots from my summer spent in the Caribbean island of Utila, where sandflies had their way with me. The list of physical scars goes on and on, as is often the case with us adventurous types. They hurt for a while, but then leave us with the fondest of memories and provide us with the most original souvenirs.  It is, however, the ones you can’t see—the marks on our hearts, as Bourdain suggests— that perhaps leave the greatest impact. Once you endure such intense emotion abroad, albeit pain or sheer happiness, it cannot be undone. It cannot be unseen. For me, this is precisely what happened in Rwanda — and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sarah and I departed the swanky new Concourse F in Atlanta around 5pm on a Wednesday.  In a successful attempt to save money, we had chosen been forced to select a lengthy route through London, Paris and Nairobi, before finally arriving in Kigali, Rwanda. Five airports in two days? Sure! Yes, it was every bit as exhausting as it sounds, but the overdose of adrenaline and twenty-hour layover in Paris kept us from succumbing to the acute delusion. I suppose some people would have taken advantage of such a layover and caught up on sleep, but not these girls. We were on a mission and it was called “See the Eiffel Tower, eat all the croissants in Paris and wash it down with a baguette.”  YOLO, or whatever the kids are calling it these days.  Not only did we accomplish what we’d set out to do, we actually saw more than planned. The prime location of our little apartment in the Monmartre neighborhood made for the perfect post-dinner stroll up the several hundred steps to the Sacré-Coeur. When we breathlessly arrived to the top of basilica, we both stood in awe as we looked over the entire city of Paris, illuminated by one of the most gorgeous harvest moons we’d ever seen. The Eiffel Tower, so far from us now that it looked like a toy, was even twinkling like a star as it does every night, on the hour. The next morning, after about 3 hours of sleep, we promised each other we’d make it back to that same spot to watch the sun rise over the city. Waking up in a cool, unheated apartment on only a few hours of sleep was tough, I must admit. The payoff, however, was well worth it.  Given the current five o’clock hour, we were the only tourists around for days, making it seem as though the town was all ours. It was perfect.  We really made the most of a night (and morning) in Paris, managing to fall in love almost too quickly. I think I speak for both of us when I say that a second, much longer visit is in order. It’s only au revoir for now, Paris.

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I suppose this one doesn’t require a caption. 

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The Sacré-Cœur Basilica at sunrise. 

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 The sun rises over a chilly, yet welcoming Paris.

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 More from the sun…

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Taken at about 40,000 ft., during the flight from Paris to Nairobi. What’s better than waking up from a nap and seeing the sunset over the Nile River out your window?

We arrived to Kigali International Airport around midnight on Friday,  finally ending a lengthy, four-flight journey all the way from Atlanta. Despite the short line in the seemingly desolate and newly renovated airport, the customs process took quite a few minutes. Who cares, I thought. I’m in Africa. Sarah had already arranged transportation through Kula Project’s In-Country Director, Manu, who was waiting for us with bells on when we exited baggage claim. I already knew a bit about Manu through Sarah, who had shown me photos of his massive smile and warned me about his unique laugh that can shake a room. He’s one of those people that you can almost hear in a single photograph. His job for the next two weeks was to act as the liaison between us and the farmers, and he couldn’t be more thrilled to do so. Upon meeting me at the Kigali airport that late Friday night, Manu’s first words to me were, “Welcome to your home,” followed by that smile I’d previously seen in photos. I knew straight away that he was going to be one of the highlights of this trip for me, personally. This guy was a star.

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Manu and his infectious laugh.

A quick ten minute drive put us at our Kigali apartment just after one o’clock in the morning. Bobby Neptune, the photographer and videographer set to document the lives of Kula’s farmers for the next two weeks, was supposed to be arriving just a couple hours after us. Manu and the driver went back to the airport to pick him up, only to find that his flight from Ethiopia had been canceled. Realizing there wasn’t much we could do, Sarah and I went straight to bed.  If you’ve never been there before, my friends, fifty-two hours of near-sleepless transit will take you to a very special state of tired.  On the flip side, it will also end with the deepest and most satisfying sleep of your life. When I awoke the next morning I don’t think I knew where I was for a solid thirty seconds. I felt like a new person. Naturally, Sarah was already awake and ready for the day. She quickly updated me on Bobby’s status, telling me that we were leaving around midday to go grab him from the airport with Manu and the driver. I slowly got ready and scoped out the apartment that would play “home” to us for the next fourteen days. It was a beautiful place, complete with a living room, full kitchen, hot water and any other first world amenity you can dream up. I’d have to say that the balconies were the kicker. You could see half of the mountainous, bustling city of Kigali just footsteps from our living room. It was stunning. Keep in mind, Rwanda is still fairly new to the tourism game. It lacks much in the way of backpacker-style infastructure, so hostels and cheap homestays don’t quite exist yet. I have no doubts that it’s all coming soon, but for now, apartments and overpriced hotels are the only option. Considering this was a non-profit trip, we obviously opted for the more economical route.  Still, it was certainly an upgrade for Amelia.

Maya Angelou once said, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." As I watch  awake from our porch for the last time this morning, I like to think that we helped a few people with exactly that these past 2 weeks.

Balcony view, workspace, morning reflection area — whatever you want to call it.  It was such a treat. 

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Balcony at sunrise. It made the 5:45 alarm clock a bit less brutal. 

Have I just confused the heck out of you now? Are you thinking that none of this sounds typical of Africa? Do they even have electricity there? These are all quite typical misconceptions we, as westerners, have of Africa. I won’t get on a high horse about it right now, but I do hope this post changes how you perceive Africa and Rwanda. Let’s start with the fact that Africa is actually a continent, not a country. I so often hear it talked about as if it’s just one, massive country that lacks any development or infrastructure. That couldn’t be further from the truth. When I told people I was going on this trip initially, many reacted with the standard, “Ooooh. Yikes! Better have your immunizations updated. Might want to say your goodbyes to folks now!” This really happened — as in, more than once. It’s hilarious, yet unfortunate.  I felt safer in Kigali than almost anywhere else in the world. Seriously. In addition, Kigali is one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever visited, while the people are as welcoming and kind as they make ‘em. Rwanda, in particular, is actually very mountainous, hence its nickname, The Land of a Thousand Hills.  It’s green, lush and the climate is quite mild compared to some of its neighbors. There were several times throughout the trip where someone in the group would even say, “Look at this. We could almost be in Switzerland right now.”  Speaking of which, it’s also about as peaceful as Switzerland these days. There aren’t hoards of people walking the streets with machetes and assault rifles, and you’d be hard pressed to find a starving child with flies swarming its face. I’m looking at you, American media. Instead, the streets are lined with men and women heading to work, children in adorable uniforms skipping to school and vendors selling almost anything you can imagine. Kigali, as well as the rest of Rwanda, is just bursting at the seams with people who want a better country. They’re really no different than you and I.  They want opportunity and development, and with a government that supports both, I’d say they’re well on their way.

It all felt so surreal to me. This constant realization of, I’m in Africa, replayed in my mind for the entire two weeks. I looked forward to our first day on the farms the way a child looks forward to Christmas morning. It was only Sarah, Bobby and myself the first few days and we were more than ready to make some magic. My first day on the farms is almost a blur, to be honest. It was all so new to me and I felt like a wide-eyed young girl, much like the first time I ever saw New York City in person. It was overwhelming, but in only the best sense of the word.  We met Manu and our driver for the week, Vincent, outside our apartment at about eight in the morning. We loaded up the 1990-something Land Cruiser with Bobby’s gear, snacks and water, and climbed in. I was excited for the drive, as I always love a bit of transit abroad. I never get tired of seeing something for the first time.  After about ten minutes of perfectly paved roads in Kigali, we finally arrived at the beginning of the 18 kilometer dirt road that would take us all the way to Ruli. Sarah wasn’t kidding— the ride was something out of a National Geographic spread.  The hills peacefully rolled by, while my most updated playlist seemed to play their song.  Everything was so green, while the Nyabarongo River’s red clay color provided the perfect contrast to what looked to be a fake backdrop.  Two very bumpy hours later, we arrived at the Land of a Thousand Hills coffee washing station, our home base in Ruli for the week. From there, the views only got better. I remember thinking, is this real life? People actually live here?

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The Nyabarongo River was just one of many highlights on our two hour drive into Ruli. 

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 Our group’s favorite spot, just a couple of kilometers outside of Ruli.

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View from the Land Cruiser every day. I’ll bet Manu still hasn’t put that phone down. He’s worse than an American with that thing! 

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A good look at what those dark beans look like before you grind and brew ’em. 

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The pulper and his commander hard at work.

Coffee Drying

The sun working its magic, drying coffee beans in only the most natural way. 

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Sorting the good, form the bad, from the okay.

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These women work harder than hard, so sometimes taking time to smile is necessary. That goes for all of us. 

We first met with Nepo and Velediana, high in the mountains of Ruli. Their five-year old son, Prince, played around with an umbrella, occasionally using it for its shading purpose.  One of my first memories of the farms was realizing that little Prince was wearing an official Schweinsteiger jersey. For those of you who aren’t big into the international fútbol thing, Schweinsteiger is one of Germany’s best players, and thus, quite famous. I just didn’t expect to see anything resembling European football on a farm in Ruli, Rwanda.  The work started quickly, Bobby focusing on still shots and Manu translating his every word back to the farmers. When Sarah and I weren’t helping Bobby out, we would hang back and observe.  She used this opportunity to explain so much to me about the land, the farmers and how Kula fits into it all. Manu, with his charming accent, would chime in every now and then with a question for Sarah, who’s name he pronounced with a rolling “R.” Their relationship is genuine and playful, and I immediately see how much he enjoys working with Sarah. They’ve been doing this together since the fall of 2013, when Sarah hired Manu through Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee Co.  They’ve made giant strides ever since and now that I’ve seen it up close & personal, I believe Manu is absolutely critical in facilitating relationships with the farmers, who are Kula’s heart and soul. Despite an additional, hour-long commute between our apartment and his home every single morning and evening, Manu worked the long, hot days in the field alongside of us.  I can’t imagine he slept more than five hours a night, yet he met us each day with his huge white smile and freshly pressed jeans, ready to do it all over again. He and Vincent would greet us with a genuine, “Mwaramutse,” good morning in Kinyarwanda. After about 4 days, I finally caught onto a few of these introductions, doing my best to make sure I didn’t miss a syllable. As it turns out, the moderate amount of Spanish I know didn’t work here. Who knew? Manu got a kick out of our attempts and would constantly let out one of his signature laughs, indicating that we weren’t even close to the correct word. Sarah and I returned the laugh one day, when we asked him to play some of his favorite music for us. Both assuming it would be something of the local-sounding sorts, we almost fell over laughing when Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” came through the tiny speakers of his iPad. Here we were, in the middle of rural Rwanda, on a farm, listening to Bruce Springsteen on an iPad.  As bizarre as the moment sounds, these are the times you realize that we really are all the same — and that’s priceless.

Prince Umbrellas

Meet Schweinsteiger. Oops, I mean, Prince. 

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First day on the job at Nepo & Velediana’s house.  Like everyone else in Ruli, they were incredibly kind and hospitable.

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Scenery like this made the heat and uphill climbs seem like nothing. 

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This was taken at the little stream we passed everyday on the ride into Ruli. Sarah, in particular, absolutely loved this spot. By the end of the trip, Manu was calling it “Sarah’s River.”  (Photo credit: Nate)

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The three amigos. (Photo credit: Nate)

The next nine days on the farms were just as intriguing as the first, each one providing a new experience, and with it, a new lesson.  As the week went on, the group became bigger, which only enhanced the dynamic. Bobby’s assistant, Nate, joined us from the states, while John JTT made it to us by bus from Uganda. That strikethrough isn’t a typo, in case you were wondering. The guy looks almost identical to Jonathan Taylor Thomas, child star of Home Improvement and cover boy of every Bop Magazine ever published. See the photos below for proof — the resemblance is uncanny.  With the new additions to the group, came a renewed sense of energy. Bobby now had his right-hand man, relieving him of some stress, while Sarah and I were able to interact more with the farmers and children. Every morning we’d all wake up within about thirty minutes of each other and head straight for the coffee. Nate, an ex-barista and coffee aficionado, brought a couple bags of Ethiopian blend with him, ensuring we had only the highest quality crack in the morning.  No Foldgers for this group! After a cup of coffee brought us to life, we’d shower, throw mostly dirty clothes on and pack-up for the day. Sarah was in charge of our massive snack bag, stuffing it with peanut butter & honey sandwiches, Kind Bars and anything else that could withstand the heat on the farms. That was all we would have until dinner, so you know I kept a close eye on that situation. We all grabbed our daypacks and a piece or two of Bobby’s equipment and met Manu in our parking lot.  By 7:30 AM, we were all tightly packed-in and ready to endure the two hour dirt-road ride to Ruli. Upon arriving to the coffee washing station, we’d all anxiously hop out of the car and stretch out our stiff legs. I generally ran straight to the toilet, thanks to the liter of water I consumed during the drive. And by toilet, I mean “long drop” or hole in the ground, of course.  That was the only toilet we’d see until the end of the day, so not using it just wasn’t an option for me. Once our legs were stretched and our bladders were emptied, it was time to work. We would either walk up a steep mountainside to get to a farmer’s house, or Vincent would drive us several more kilometers away in the trusty Land Crusier. We’d spend hours upon hours with these families, sometimes on their farm, and other times, in the comfort of their home. I would try to chat with them as much as I could, while Bobby and the rest of the team would work with Manu to organize the family for the next shot. All of us played slightly different, undefined roles, but it worked beautifully. The days were long and often hot, but never came without reward. Just before the sun began to set, we’d head back down to the coffee washing station and once again, pile into the truck. The ride home was always so different than the ride there. The exhaustion was visible, but the looks of content dominated. Headphones went in, eyes stared out, and the sun set over Ruli in the rearview.  A sense of fulfillment gave the dusty air a run for its money. This was our routine every single day for almost two weeks, and it was absolutely magnificent.

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 While it may not be the best shot, it accurately depicts our morning rides into Ruli. Headphones, water bottles, people sprawled out wherever there’s room. Oh and look! Manu on his phone! 

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JTT showing some of the neighborhood kiddos a few photos. 

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Just a girl and her sweet potatoes. I have a slight obsession with these things, so this basket was probably my favorite find in all of Ruli. 

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Meet Nate. Not only is he an expert in all things coffee, but he also enjoys hiding shrubbery every now and then. The things photographers do for a good shot, right?  It was quite clear that this wasn’t his first rodeo.

school kids

 How great are these uniforms? The faces are even better.

jtt kids

 JTT, also known as, every kid’s favorite.

 jtt buckethead

 He’s talented too, just like the real JTT! 

 Manu tired

 This was taken during one of our final days, so I can’t blame Manu for trying to snag a few minutes of R&R. 

sBobby staring out

I could honestly write another 3,000 words about our day-to-day life on the farms, but I’ll save that for the future book. What started as an opportunity for me to help Kula, ended with Kula helping me. Throughout my fourteen day stay, I was reminded every single day of one of the most critical concepts in life: We are all human. While each day’s routine may have been identical, the takeaways were all unique. There were a few particular days that will forever be etched in the depths of my memory, and for that, I am grateful. I spent anywhere from six to eight hours per day interacting with people who don’t speak the same language as me, and yet, I learned. I learned that we don’t need to use words to convey love. I learned that children who have the least, often dream the most. I learned that forgiveness is always possible. It was only twenty years ago that these people were ruthlessly killing each other in the streets, and now, I watched as they shared their land and their homes with each other.  It’s a happy ending to a horrific movie. The lessons and cliches from this trip are abundant and I could easily go on and on, but that’s not why I’m here. The personal growth I experienced in Rwanda was merely an added bonus to the main feature.  I joined The Kula Project on this particular venture so that I could help them communicate their cause with the world.  I can’t tell you what I expected to see, because I was careful not to set any concrete expectations in the first place. I can, however, tell you that The Kula Project is so much more than just a non-profit.  It took me a few days to pinpoint the key factor that differentiates Kula from other do-gooders, but once I did, it seemed so obvious. Kula focuses on building genuine relationships, using love & compassion as the glue. This was so evident with Sarah and Maria, who quickly became one of everybody’s favorites. I watched their relationship go from almost-strangers to best friends in just a week. Maria was one of three genocide victims who agreed to tell us her story, which would bring any grown man to tears.  Sarah has already done a beautiful job of summing up Maria’s story and her feelings, here, so I’ll let you read that on the Kula Blog. I will say, however, that day brought an epiphanic experience with it. I remember looking at Maria, soaking her tears up with her long, surrong-like skirt, thinking, If she can forgive these people, I can forgive anyone. Suddenly the small feuds I battled within the depths of my mind seemed so miniature. With one woman’s story, I was freed. The power of this day is hard to put into words, but it’s precisely the story that must be heard. Sarah aptly named her post, “Maria, The Survivor,” and it’s a must-read for all of us.

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 Our interview with Maria was accompanied by an indescribable silence. She told her story in Kinyarwanda for 20 straight minutes, none of us comprehending a word of it. Still, the message was poignant. She had been to hell and back and I couldn’t begin to relate. All I could do was listen — so I did.

When she wasn’t spending time fostering this new relationship with Maria, Sarah would chat it up with the men of the house, trying to work her way into a Rwandan family. One of the surlier, yet hilarious farmers, Stoney, was probably her most successful attempt. What started as a funny joke about Sarah marrying his son, turned into a conversation about how many cows Sarah was worth. In Rwanda, cows are a status symbol and treated as pets, not simply livestock. In other words, Stoney was going big, or going home. I’m still not sure how much of a joke all of this was, but it sure did make my day.  When the men and women were busy on the farms with Bobby,  Sarah could be found playing with the kids, indicating that she does, in fact, have quite a maternal side. As it turns out, so do I. These kids will bring it out of any woman, so you’ve been warned. Their smiles are contagious and their laughs sing a song of gratitude and innocence.  They were mesmerized by our iPhones and cameras, constantly begging to see photos of themselves. It made their day, perhaps even their year. The simplicity in Rwanda made me envious. One could look at the lives these people live and pity them, but I assure you, that would be a shame. They carry massive jerry cans of water up mountains in the hot African sun, never once considering how tough it is. They walk several, uphill kilometers every day to tend to their crops, smiling at neighbors along the way. When they want something to eat, they have to start from scratch, also known as, the farm. Food doesn’t come easily, so it’s no surprise that nothing’s wasted here. Towards the end of the trip, we had the opportunity to spend an entire day at Maria’s house, as Bobby needed some “day in the life” footage. We were lucky enough to be there for lunch, which made for the most unique experience I’ve ever had abroad. Maria began by picking the green bananas from a tree, and two hours later, there were two casserole dishes on the table, accompanied by plates, silverware and several bottles of soft drinks.  Talk about farm-to-table, huh? This was their version of rolling out the red carpet and breaking out the fine china. Soft drinks don’t come cheap in the mountains of Ruli, while wages are unimaginable to you and I. It was the ultimate christening of the relationship between Maria & Martin, and our team. These are the relationships Kula builds, and this is exactly how they’re received. I felt like every day was one giant testament to what makes Kula unique and powerful.

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 One of Stoney’s cows. I found it amusing to see how these cows interacted with humans. It was quite similar to the relationship between man and dog in other parts of the world. Even the energy of the cow was unusual to me. He wanted constant petting and attention. It was adorable. 

 Sarah sticks

 Sarah carried these sticks up to Stoney (to be used as a prop), but it didn’t go over too well. Stoney immediately threw them on the ground and told Manu that carrying sticks is not a man’s job — it’s a woman’s.  All of us, including Manu, rolled with laughter.

Dinner table set

A full-on table set at Maria’s. Silverware isn’t generally used here, so this was certainly special treatment. 

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 Sarah and I looking REAL excited about whatever it was we were about to eat. 

Fantas

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Close up of Maria’s home cooking. Green bananas, beans, tomatoes, garlic and that’s about it. If I’ve left something out, I don’t want to know. 

Our trip concluded with perhaps my favorite day in Rwanda. We were on a tight schedule towards the end, so we were only set to spend a couple of hours with the farmers. We arrived at the coffee washing station a little later than usual, and several farmers had already started gathering. They were all instructed to meet us at 10AM so Sarah could confirm how many coffee and banana seedlings they would need when she came back in October. Within fifteen minutes, all twenty farmers, dressed in their Sunday best, sat in front of us with anxious smiles that told stories of hope. The few farmers who we’d spent the most time with throughout the week approached Sarah and I with the same “Muraho” & “Amakuru” (Hi, how are you?) that my friends at home do. If that didn’t warm my heart enough, the next few minutes really put me over the top, forcing me to fight back the tears. With the help of Manu, Sarah kicked off the meeting by thanking them for their friendship, then asked each farmer to confirm how many seedlings they needed for the next season. I sat silently and wrote it all down for her in the designated spreadsheet, as she needed an extra hand here. The questions led to a group discussion that I found fascinating. After running through the standard farm tool checklist with them, one of the men asked if it would be possible to get a wheelbarrow. Whispering and hopeful speculation immediately ensued. Sarah looked down, carefully double-checking the budget to see if anything was left. I could tell by the look on her face, it was a go. She had Manu translate her final words, letting them know seedlings, farm tools and wheelbarrows would be given to each of them in October. Without warning, they all began clapping at once, their smiles now telling a story of gratefulness, not just hopefulness. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on Sarah’s face. It was hard to see through the tears I was fighting back, but it said everything. In one moment, it’s as if all of the hard work and compassion she’d poured into Kula the past two years was working. Her dreams were becoming reality, and they just so happened to change the lives of others. It was all happening and I had a front row seat. I don’t think I’ve ever been more overcome with the do-good feeling than that exact moment. I realized the endless possibilities Kula now had in front of them, and what it meant for farmers in Rwanda.  It was a perfect end to this roller coaster of a trip, but not even close to the end of the story. Thanks to Kula, the story goes on. And thanks to so many of you, the world will hear it.

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About Amelia

Recently-turend 30, curious and driven by all things travel. Follow the adventure and questionable decision making here!

5 Comments

  1. Kim

    Loved your post and all the pics Emily!!! As always, you have such a way with words I almost feel like I’m there too!! Loved the Paris pics as well, my parents are there right now!!! And side note, my mom and dad have called me Grace for years too. Lol. Can’t wait to hear about your next travel plans!! xoxo

    1. Amelia

      So happy you enjoyed it, Kim! I think you HAVE to put Paris on your list now. It really is everything it’s cracked up to be. Your parents will say the same, I’m sure. Thank you SO freakin’ much for the support. From random posts to the fundraiser – you’re always cheering me on…and that means a lot. :) I’m so excited about this next year, and I plan on focusing on the blog a bit more. Here’s to it! xx

  2. Shawn

    Lovely post, Emily! I’m so glad your trip had such an impact, not only with yourself, but the farmers and their families, and everyone you can share this story with at home.  The photos were geogous and I can’t wait to read more.

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