One week from now, I will be traveling through Rwanda — “land of 1,000 hills” — with 18 high school students.
I’m still trying to convince myself of this fact: On Sunday, I will abandon my desk here at the Addison Independent for three weeks and hop on a plane to sub-Saharan Africa, acting as a multimedia instructor for a group of students who are immersed in an unfamiliar country, a different history, a new reality.
I’ll miss Crockpot Fridays in the office and Town Meeting Day, and I’ll miss skiing and snowshoeing — at least if it ever does snow.
Instead I’m trading all that for an experience that will be intense and exciting, sobering and exhilarating, all at once. It’ll include equatorial heat, sun-drenched tropical cities and towns, exotic music and dancing (I hope!). But it will also include orphanages and genocide memorials and long hours of struggle to do justice to the stories we’ll be collecting in multimedia format.
The trip, which we’re billing as “Stories of Hope,” is run by Harwood Union High School English teacher Steve Rand, and for many of the 14 Harwood students on the trip, it follows a semester-long class on Rwandan history. It’s an annual trip that stretches back nearly a decade — though this year, it also includes four students from Woonsocket, R.I. For the past two years the trip has included a multimedia effort in collaboration with the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury.
To help students process the volume of new experiences they encounter in the course of the expedition, multimedia and ethnography instructors travel with the group, help the students use recording equipment and encourage them to do what Folklife Center director of education and folklorist Greg Sharrow (who’s traveled with the group for the past two years) terms “deep hanging” — that is, taking the time to really get to know someone, to listen openly and to share meaningful stories.
When my friend Aylie Baker — a fellow at the Folklife Center — ran into me in early January, that wasn’t exactly what she said. What she said, to the best of my recollection, was “What are you doing in February? Do you want to go to Rwanda? We need another person who knows multimedia.”
To the best of my recollection, I said, “Yes! Of course! But I have a job.”
Fast forward a hectic month and a half (tying up loose ends in the office, preparing an Internet blog site so I can post travel stories from Africa, and taking care of travel details), and here I am, preparing to head out. Over the past couple weeks I’ve gotten a crash course in modern Rwandan history, which I’m not going to sum up here. Suffice it to say that the movie “Hotel Rwanda” addresses the 1994 Hutu massacre of what many estimate was well over half a million Tutsis, but it doesn’t begin to describe the complex social and political background that set the stage for those events, or the struggle to rebuild the country following that turmoil, or the country’s growing prominence as a place to design and build information technology.
Heck, I’m not going to pretend I know even half of the story after reading a book or two. But I’ve got my malaria pills and my travel-size shampoo, and I’m ready to go and soak up every bit of knowledge (and sunshine) I possibly can, and to help 18 high school students bring back their own stories of what they have learned there.
Follow my journey online at http://rwandanotebook.wordpress.com.
Reporter (and multimedia instructor, too) Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.