“You’re Not Going to Save Africa”

At different points during his stay at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rabbi Mike Uram would be asked a question he really didn’t know how to answer. “You’re Jewish,” one of the orphans would say. “What was your genocide like?”

Uram, the director of the Penn Hillel, led the students’ trip to Rwanda over the final two weeks in May. His grandparents, like Rosen’s, were Holocaust survivors. But being asked that question still produced what he’d later call an “awkward moment.” His grandparents had been able to come to the United States to start a new life, an ocean away from where the Nazis wiped out two-thirds of the European Jewish population. Many of the Rwandan orphans, meanwhile, still lived in the same country where their parents were murdered, perhaps nearby the very people that murdered them. He didn’t know what he could possibly say to them.

“The hard thing to wrap your mind around is that someone who killed your father is living next door to you and how do you ever get over that?” Uram says. “How do you go on with your life? Is it right to forgive? Is that real justice?”

Or, in simpler terms: “How does a society go from normalcy to insanity and back again?”

These were some of the questions that Uram and the 14 Penn students grappled with before, during, and after their trip to Rwanda (which was organized by Penn Hillel and funded by the Faith & Service Partners initiative of Penn’s Fox Leadership Program). And even if there were no real answers, the questions themselves were an important part of the dialogue between each other and with the residents of Agahozo-Shalom. It’s one large reason why Heyman has encouraged different American universities to visit the village throughout the year—but also why she typically offers one piece of valuable advice before they leave. “You’re not going to save Africa in two weeks,” she says. “You’re going to learn how most of the world lives and understand the issues that face them and have a conversation with yourself at this point, thinking, ‘How does this fit in my life?’”

For the Penn students, the trip was structured into three components. First, they provided real service, building a garden and a fire pit, so that the student-run canteen would become more of a communal meeting spot in the center of the village. The second part was learning: After performing all the manual labor in the Rwandan sun, they’d sit under a mango tree and have deep, reflective conversations about religion, service, and violence. And lastly, they strived to have a cultural interchange with the children of the village, bonding with them over meals, playing games with them, teaching them English, learning about their art and music, and generally enjoying all of their daily routines and activities.

They weren’t saving Africa, but they were making a difference in a few kids’ lives.

“Before leaving for Agahozo-Shalom, I didn’t know what to expect of the youth village,” says Nandhakumar. “I was curious to see what a place like Agahozo could do not just for the children but also for Rwanda as a whole. In a few conversations I had with friends and family, a lot of issues were brought up; some of them surrounded the fact that these were only 375 of Rwanda’s many orphans, and another big question was how you make an initiative like this sustainable. Being in the village, and interacting with everyone there, helped answer a lot of those questions. What struck me the most about the village was the dignity and respect that was so evident in every encounter we had. The kids had respect for each other, for us, for their house mothers, and everyone else.”

The orphans also had something no one from Penn really expected: hope.

Destroying the Notion of Otherness

For some of the Penn students, there was, admittedly, a small barrier in the way when they first arrived at Agahozo-Shalom. It didn’t take long, however, for those walls to crumble. “The conversations were very superficial,” says Bhojani. “Then, as I got to know them, the conversations became really real.”

Real didn’t always mean deep. Bhojani, for one, learned that many of the orphans liked the rapper Tupac Shakur, just like she did. Nandhakumar smiled along as the entire village ate cake and sang “Happy Birthday” for her during “Village Time,” when everyone gathers and puts on presentations and performances. Kayla Kapito, a diplomatic history major at Penn, enjoyed nighttime Justin Bieber dance parties with the kids. And still other Penn students taught the kids guitar, or carried them on their backs during hikes, or helped them sign up for Facebook. “Wherever you are in the world,” Kapito says, “teenagers are teenagers.”

And, of course, most teenagers like sports—which is where Rosen and Jok really made their mark. “The language of basketball is universal,” says Rosen, an all-Ivy League point guard. “We couldn’t speak their language but we spoke basketball.” So while they were there, the two Quaker hoopsters each coached separate teams, which were pitted against each other for two marquee games. That much we know; the rest is a little hazy.

“By the way, I was 2-0 against Zack, so put that out there,” Jok laughs.

“The second game we won,” Rosen retorts. “Those are the facts. He’s a liar.”

Playful ribbing aside, sports certainly helped bridge the gap. The first day they arrived in Rwanda, Rosen and classmate Brian Powers jumped right into the middle of a soccer game and didn’t miss a beat. “If you looked at a photograph all you’d see was otherness,” Uram says. “There are these privileged, white Penn students living in the developed world and these rural African kids living in the developing world—and yet within five minutes they’re playing soccer together.

“What was overwhelming for me and the students was the profound connection we felt with the students in the youth village,” Uram added. “It destroyed the notion of otherness.”

The notion of otherness was similarly destroyed by the way the Penn students interacted with each other. With the idea of developing an interfaith trip, from among the approximately 70 applicants overall Uram selected students of different religious backgrounds—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and Buddhist—and from several different countries, including Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. The Hillel director was rewarded by not only how well everyone bonded but also how much they tried to learn. “I was blown away to see the conversations Penn students were having with each other,” Uram says. “To see a Jewish woman and a Muslim sit and talk for four hours about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, to see a deeply devout Christian talking to a Jewish student and trying to understand how his faith can be true and also how to love and respect this Jewish person—to go that deep, I think, was a huge takeaway and makes me even more committed to this kind of work.”

The Penn students also had meaningful conversations with the Rwandans, who cared as much, if not more, about the political future of the country as they did about reading and arithmetic. Of course, even Penn’s finest minds couldn’t always give their hosts rational answers about how a nation can spiral into chaos, or, even more, how it can recover from that. And they especially didn’t know what to say when, after they had returned teary-eyed and shaken from the mass gravesite, some of the orphans told them that their parents were killed there.

But, in the end, just talking made a world of difference. And that was when they realized how similar they actually were. Just like them, the orphans wanted to lead a good life, to get a good job, to make good friends—and to dance and sing and kick balls along the way. The students from Penn and Agahozo-Shalom came from very different worlds but had very similar hopes.

“That’s the crazy thing about it,” Jok says. “The whole village is all about hope, all about the future. It was all about love and togetherness. They’re so inspired for the future. They have so many aspirations.”


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COVER STORY: Horror and Hope By Dave Zeitlin
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John Plaisted helps mix concrete to construct benches and tables for a gathering area outside the student canteen.



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Last modified 8/26/11