April Newsletter My last update from Rwanda (for now)

I have to apologize in advance for a couple of things. First, this newsletter is long overdue. And, as a result, it's long. A lot longer than I had anticipated. But I promise it's worth the read. The sections are the same as last month + one new one: Working with Earth Enable, On the Daily, Something Unexpected, Something Else Unexpected, Stories from the Field, and Extracurricular Activities.


Working with Earth Enable

I've worked on a LOT of different project with Earth Enable and am very proud of what my team and I have been able to accomplish in such a short period of time.

I've been designing a service from beginning to end for Earth Enable's new market-driven, reduced cost product called "Ishema." Designing the service from top to bottom has been a rewarding and enjoyable experience. I'd wanted to dip my toe into service design, and I've had a fantastic time filling in the gaps, working with our customers, and strategizing how best to provide the service for our customers.

I've also been able to put my software project management skills to work by designing a digital platform as an integral part of the Ishema service. The platform is USSD - a common digital solution used on feature phones (Remember Nokia bar phones? Right, those.) in East Africa.

I thought I was ready to walk away from the world of software, but taking this project from concept, through design and testing and now to business requirements and development has reminded me how much I enjoy being in the driver's seat with software development projects.

On the Daily

The rainy season has arrived! Flooding my morning commute and providing me the opportunity to get closer to everyone else hiding from the torrents that fall from the sky on a regular basis. Fortunately, the rain doesn't fall as often as my colleagues had predicted it would. We'll get rain two days in a row for a few hours. The periods of rain are followed by three or four days in a row of warm sunshine and gorgeous skies.

The rainy season & my newly perfected cup of coffee.

I've also perfected my office coffee routine. I appreciate whoever emptied this Nescafe jar. You all should know me well enough to realize I had almost nothing to do with it (almost). Rwandan coffee is so incredible, I have no idea why anyone would bother with dehydrated coffee substance created in a lab somewhere. Anyway. I've reintroduced my coffee rhythm to my daily life, and it's improved everything from 8am to 6pm.

Something Unexpected

April 7th marked the 23rd anniversary of the day in 1994 when president Habyarimana's plane was shot from the sky, kicking off the genocide in full force. What follows are 100 days of remembrance that align with the duration the genocide was carried out before Paul Kagame and the RPF rebel army took Kigali, formally ending the genocide and the country's civil war. Rwanda recognizes a full week of national holiday, setting the time aside for reflection and discussions of reconciliation between the victims and their aggressors.

I felt it wasn't appropriate for me as an expat to be involved in the country's deeply emotional and personal period of reflection. My sister and I planned her visit during this time, so we could head to her old Peace Corps stomping grounds just across the border in Uganda. I chose to leave for the week out of respect for the country, its people, and the challenging time they faced.

Megan and I spent a couple of days in Kabale visiting a very closer friend and her family. She prepared a beautiful meal of matoke, peanut sauce, bananas plucked from trees in their yard, delightfully-prepared chicken they had raised (yes, even I ate the chicken), and a little wine to celebrate the reunion. It was a wonderful welcome back for Megan and a treat for me to be welcomed to a celebratory meal with a welcoming Ugandan family, who insisted I refer to them as my Ugandan family before we left.

Megan's (and now my) Ugandan family

We then made our way to Lake Bunyonyi, an incredibly photogenic freshwater lake speckled with majestic islands whose steep hills plummet past their terraced gardens and into the lake. The lake is tucked into the rolling hills of Southwest Uganda and served as Megan's sanctuary when she needed a break from work. I now understand why.

Our first evening here, we ran into a young Rwandan man who joined us for dinner, beers and innumerable games of cards. After wrapping up at the island's restaurant, he came back to our tent where we looked out over the lake and chatted into the night. Here we learned that his parents had been killed during the genocide, and his trip to the island was his way of commemorating them and processing his feelings about the events of 1994. He has a passion for birding and decided a trip to a serene landscape filled with rare tropical birds would offer him a better opportunity to reflect than being surrounded by a population in mourning.

Our new friend, Ivan, who shared his deeply personal stories with Megan and me

This chance encounter was unexpected, and I treasure the opportunity we had to meet him and hear his stories. The most Megan and I could do was listen. How could we possibly relate to these experiences and memories? I hope our listening ears were therapeutic for him as he recounted his memories and shared his emotions.

Something Else Unexpected

Rwanda has been steeped in reflection throughout April, which has led to hours of my own reflecting. I can't help but think about all the people who were harmed. And - even more - how those who harmed them managed to commit such awful crimes. Those 100 days were so dark. So barbaric. I walk down the street and see people differently. Wondering what they've experienced. Or what they're capable of.

But today, I witnessed something beautiful and unexpected.

I was walking down the dirt road from where the work truck drops me off in the evening. A 10-ish-year-old boy walking in front of me began jumping and twirling. Each time he jumped, his sister clapped and squealed with delight. They turned their evening walk home into a lovely connection between brother and sister. I couldn't help but smile.

As these two continued twirling and clapping down the road, a young couple (probably in their early twenties) crossed their path heading in the opposite direction. The young man grabbed the woman's hand and spun her in a circle, ripping my attention from the spinning boy and his sister. The woman's dress flared as she spun, her hand made its way to her face covering her flirtatious grin.

She spun a couple more times before the two of them buckled over in laughter. They then grabbed hands and skipped up the road, Wizard of Oz style. They didn't notice me watching them. I don't think they noticed anyone. They must have felt like they were the only two on that dirt path, and maybe the only two humans on the planet.

I had a smile glued to my face as I walked the last 100 meters home. It was a beautiful end to a week of intense thought and reflection. The happiness that drove these four reminded me there is always joy to find if you look for it.

Stories from the Field

One of the key components of designing the Ishema service has been getting in the field to work with customers. See their floors. Get a sense of what they're struggling with, then using their struggles as a base for designing a better service.

My colleague Joseph and I have regularly been in the field gathering information from customers and testing our ideas for how to improve the service. We often spend the morning in the office trying to solve a problem or determine how to fill a gap in the service. And in the afternoon, we jump on motorcycles and run our ideas by customers.

One day we were deep in the rural communities of Bugesera and were joined by a colleague in a RAV 4. After inspecting a few floors, we made our way back to the motorcycles and RAV 4 and found some curious children making faces in the metallic cover for the car's spare tire. They crossed their eyes. Pulled their mouths open with their fingers, flicking their tongues about.

A mirror... of sorts.

They were having a great time watching themselves. We were having a great time watching them. All of us smiling and laughing together, enjoying their moment with a reflective object.

I regularly witness beautiful moments like these here. I'm not sure if there are more of them to witness, or if I'm noticing them more because of the change in environment. Regardless, I hope to take the ability to recognize and appreciate these touching human moments with me when I leave here.

Extracurricular Activities

I wrote the majority of this newsletter seated under a thatched umbrella atop one of the gorgeous hill-islands of lake Bunyonyi. Megan and I spent the majority of our time here reading, playing cards, and enjoying as much undisturbed relaxation as is humanly possible. Each day after a lengthy breakfast that could only be described as slothful, we made our way to the lake for a swim.

On our first visit to the lake, we were both hesitant to jump in - uncertain of the lake's temperature and its depth. Each of us attempted to convince the other to go first. But upon noticing a hornets nest on the dock, our reluctance evaporated. We both cannonballed into the cold water and made our way to a floating dock about 50 feet from shore. We rested there for a bit, plotting our strategy for getting back to the main dock without a running with the hornets. While we once again lazily and unconvincingly tried to get the other to go first, we began to notice the wasps had made their way to our floating perch. And upon investigation, found an even larger nest surrounded by far more wasps than we had originally escaped.

"Brace yourself, Megan, I'm going first!" She crouched to brace herself for the recoiling of the dock as I leapt off. By the time I surfaced she was already in the water and breast stroking past me. She made it to the ladder and out of the water faster than I thought possible.

Megan on the dock, and me on the rope swing.

The next day, we found a rope swing. The largest rope swing I've ever seen. Megan played photographer while I repeatedly tespted the rope's structural integrity. I'm happy to report that it held up for 6 or 7 goes.

It was a month of exploring Rwanda's natural beauty. After returning from Uganda, Megan and I headed to Akagera game park, where we stayed in a luxury tent from which we could watch the sun set and the moon rise through a view that was so gorgeous, it looked like the set of a play. Even better? We could hear the sounds of hippos grazing less than ten feet from our patio.

Zebras at Akagera game park

I also visited an exploding lake (Lake Kivu) with my housemates Colin and Eloise. The lake is gorgeous, but apparently dangerous. It is one of two lakes in the world that has a natural source of Methane gas underneath it and can literally explode if the flow of gas gets too strong. A (slightly) less dramatic possibility is that the seeping of Methane out of the lake could kill everyone within ten miles of shore. I felt very brave walking the lake's beaches, constantly looking for signs of an impending explosion and sniffing the air for unexpected odors. :)

The glorious exploding lake, a fashionable family along the beach and the droves of bats that hide in the palm trees along the shore.

And finally, for my last weekend here, I chose to climb a volcano. The Virunga mountain range is actually a range of volcanoes that straddle the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda. As my friend Marilynn put it, "Rwanda sounds like a magic land!" And it really is. Especially if you consider that this mountain range is home to the only mountain gorillas left on Earth.

closing remarks

I'm sad to leave this part of the world, but I'm looking forward to my next adventure. Especially since I'm already in negotiations with a company to return to Rwanda as a country/regional director for their incremental build software. I've worked with this group tangentially for the majority of my time in Rwanda, and they asked me if I would be interested in continuing to work with them directly once I've finished my year with Ei. The positioin would take me across Sub-Saharan Africa and Mexico, and I'm pretty jazzed by the position we've started hashing out. Hopefully I'll have more news to share in the coming months.

By the time I send my next newsletter, I'll be back in Chicago to meet with the rest of the crew from Experience Institute and will be packing for term 3. Stay tuned to find out where and what that will be!

More Soon,



Daniel Bender

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