Letters from Africa: Reaching the Village

Editor's Note: In this space, Penn teammates Dau Jok and Zack Rosen will provide a series of blog updates on their trip to Africa and Dau's work to start up the Dut Jok Youth Foundation to help his native Sudan. For more on the tragic yet inspiring reasons behind Dau's mission, read Dana O'Neil's story here. Also make sure to check out the first and second entry in the blog journal.

From Zack: AGAHOZO-SHALOM YOUTH VILLAGE, Rwanda -- After the heavy visit to the memorial, we finally got on the road to our destination, the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. ASYV is a remarkable place. The Village spreads out over 144 acres here in the rural countryside and was designed to be a home for youth orphaned during and after the genocide of the mid-1990s. The place takes orphans from each of the districts of the country and the people here are one big family.

When asked, the kids will refer to each other as “brothers” and “sisters” and they are proud to say that this is their home. The family aspect is huge for ASYV and the place is intended to be something that the people here can call their own. I am amazed at the level of education that the kids have -- most of them are bilingual or even trilingual. Across the Village it seems that the favorite activity is studying. The kids' eyes just light up when you ask them what they are studying and what they want to do after their time here at the village.

The most amazing, powerful thing that I came across from my first day here at ASYV was the attitude. Sitting in the dining hall for dinner, eating the rice, beans and potatoes with five students here, I got into a serious conversation with one of the girls. We covered the basics, shared some laughs, and then she asked me what has been the most memorable part of my trip so far. I was hesitant, but I had to be honest and I told her about our visit to the Genocide Memorial. To my surprise she was open to the conversation. She told me that she had lost both of her parents and that she recognized the horror, but her tone was extremely positive as she expressed that she now has a family here at ASYV.

She proudly pointed around the room and told me that “these are my brothers and sisters” and she told me that she believes in the people and the future of Rwanda. She recognized that the transformation is a slow process, but she has faith that one day her country will thrive. She kept saying, “I just believe... I just believe it will get better.” Again, choices. This is the popular attitude around here and to me it's extremely potent. These people choose to believe. They choose to have faith. After what has happened, they have chosen to work together and to believe that with small steps and gradual improvement, their country will prosper.

From Dau: We recently started group discussions on issues like serving third-world countries. Every day there are two student leaders who pick an intention of the day. Thus far we have had discussions on "go," "intention" and "consideration." I am amazed as to why foreigners -- myself included -- feel the need to think about their privileges while comparing their lives to the third-world countries. We think the Rwandans who live on under-one-dollar-a-day conditions are less privileged and we feel sorry for them. In reality, I think the local African is content and a pretty happy, family-based human being when he or she has the basic needs.

In our society, we are caught up in the materials because that is how worth is measured by many. The type of house, car, clothes and other materials are used to place the individual in the hierarchy of society. Here it seems they are happy about life, nature, family, each other, and every little thing we take for granted such as water and restrooms. It is hard to avoid feeling the love of the local population when they display so much affection for one another regardless of gender or age. I think the affection is the result of close proximity to nature. No matter where you go here, you are always somehow exposed to nature physically.

We will have more in this blog as our conversations get deeper and deeper! The Agahozo Shalom Youth Village is phenomenal, from the design to the details of everything they do here. I can't wait to share more with you in the coming days. For now, click here to read more on the work being done at ASYV.

Thank you all!

Love and Peace from Africa,

Zack and Dau