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Armed with Smiles
Tuesday, 05 March 2013 Written by Katarina Baotić

Armed with SmilesOnce you’ve set foot on African soil, it’s hard to describe in words all the experiences, emotions and adventures you encounter.

I started my journey in late January, somewhat frightened by the fact that I was going to a completely unfamiliar continent and a completely unfamiliar country. But as soon as I arrived in Rwanda, a beautiful land with beautiful people, my fears quickly evaporated. The hospitality of the priests, especially fra Ivica, was the thing that delighted me the most. From the moment I arrived in Kivumu it felt like home.

After the noise of the city and the rush of university life, coming into a beautiful countryside where for several days you cannot hear the sound of a car, except for fra Ivica’s “Dragon” – instead, it is birdsong and drumbeat... and it seemed like heaven on earth.

The first stop was the Padri Vjeko Vocational Training Center. At fist when I arrived, I was greeted by bewildered glares, but there were also shy smiles of hardworking students. They all seemed surprised by the arrival of yet another umuzungu (white person). Immediately the next day we formed a small choir which was supposed to have its first presentation at the ceremonies marking the 15th anniversary of fra Vjeko Ćurić’s death.

Initially I thought it was a ‘mission impossible’ – to prepare a choir in a single day, especially because the song they were supposed to sing was in English and some of them hardly knew more than a word or two! But, after explaining some technical things with my hands, in just two hours the song was ready - ready because the students gave their very best to complete the task. African music abounds with complicated rhythms and beautiful melodies. Just imagine how overjoyed and excited I was – me, an ignorant foreigner - when I was given a chance to lead an African choir!

The 15th anniversary of fra Vjeko’s death was observed solemnly. Many priests participated in the Mass, all of them wanting to pay tribute to the great missionary. The Mass itself lasted around three hours – later I found out that here it’s normal for it to take so long. The Mass is celebrated with a lot of singing and dancing. Drums are the main church instrument, and people give praise to God by singing – another thing I was happy to observe, being a musician by profession.

Several days later, we visited Akagera National Park and got the chance to see animals that we are usually only able to see on TV. It was especially exciting when we ran into an elephant which literally jumped out of the bush and started chasing us!

But Rwanda is not only a country of magnificent beauty; it is also a country that suffered a great tragedy - the genocide, in which around a million persons lost their lives.

As a child who survived the horrors of war in my native Bosnia and Herzegovina, I thought that nothing about war could surprise me anymore, but upon visiting the Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali and seeing all that horror, I was very much in shock. It also confirmed my view that people here are very strong and that, in spite of everything that had happened, they continue to live their lives as normally as possible.

Here, you are won over by people’s kindness, hospitality, and readiness to share with you what little they have. They are always smiling, and during my stay here I can say with certainty that so far I haven’t met a person that hasn’t been kind.

My first task had been to help with the choir in the school, to share some of my experience with them, but pretty soon I recognized the amount of talent I was dealing with, and so we agreed to start a more comprehensive musical education of the students. It is sad that people with so much talent don’t really have a place where they might develop it. You see, in Rwanda there are no music academies or music schools.

Rwanda might be a land of a thousand hills and a million smiles, but it is also a country of numerous problems that weigh on its inhabitants ever more with each passing day. Back home, on TV, when we watch all those hungry kids, at first we feel shocked and sad, but soon we forget all about it and continue our lives as if they don’t exist. It is only when you actually spend some time in their midst that you realize how lucky you really are. We waste money on expensive perfumes, shampoos and all sorts of creams, and people here cut their hair short because they cannot afford expensive hair treatment. We take electricity for granted, and they got electricity just recently and are constantly reminded, by the everyday blackouts, that it’s something to be appreciated.

To be a volunteer in Rwanda doesn’t mean to be someone’s saviour. It doesn’t mean that people will glorify you because of your endeavours. To be a volunteer in Rwanda means to transfer some of your skills and knowledge to others, but it is also an opportunity to get a glimpse of the real picture of the world and to help us realize that there are good people, who, despite material poverty, are armed with the strongest weapon there is – smiling and finding joy in little things.

Translated by Branimir Mlakić
Edited by Valerie Kae Ken

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