#BeautifulDestinations: Exploring Rwanda, The Land of Eternal Spring

Traveling during the time of the coronavirus: A different kind of experience

#WearAMask: You may venture to travel but this is not the time to lower your guard. Wear a mask not just for yourself but also for people you come in contact with. Photo taken at Pepponi Living Spaces in Kigali, Rwanda.

After being stuck and missing my much-needed work break in Juba, South Sudan after six months, choosing a place to go and unwind while Covid-19 is still a threat around East Africa and many parts of the world was a tough decision. Working as a humanitarian working in fragile contexts, I know fully well that the break is not your normal holiday. It is a requirement to keep your sanity and give you a reprieve.

Traveling during this pandemic is a test of steely nerves. Having moved around 46 countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, dealing with the unseen coronavirus is something else, terrifying, to say the least. It took me months to decide it’s time to pack bags and change my environment. Looking at my veranda in Juba that has also served as my stationary running gym has become tough to endure.

After almost nine years (if my memory serves me right), I am finally back in Rwanda. This is Kigali’s beautiful city hall.

Rwanda was my most practical choice. It is close to Juba via Nairobi and took me only a day’s trip, leaving at 4:00 pm and arriving at 9:00 pm in Kigali, switching flights from Kenya Airways to Rwanda Air with a barely three-hour layover. Both airlines did remarkable jobs keeping the trips convenient and on-time. Filipinos also do not need a visa for a 90-day visit so that extra hassle was off.

Early on, I started practicing wearing my mask at my apartment in South Sudan to get me more acquainted with it. It was my biggest worry especially having asthma. This helped a lot while I was traveling as it became a normal part of my face. I was also able to observe how I breathe and where I was comfortable. I packed several masks in a sealed bag enough for the entire trip.

Here are some things kept in mind and packed in my bag ahead of the trip:

  • Medicines – asthma inhalers, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins
  • Extra face masks and less-than 100mg sanitizers; one I put in my handbag and use from time-to-time
  • Fully-charged phone/s and mobile charger
  • Credit card and spare cash (to avoid ATMs)

I am a sucker for real books but this time I brought my 12-year old Kindle with over 90 e-books on it to travel light. This did not stop me, though, from buying two books in the Genocide Museum. Bookworms are just hopeless paperback fanatics. From Juba to Nairobi to Kigali, the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion gave me a perfect insight on how to handle moments, and generally life, at its most crucial time. Amazing how books fitted what I need so perfectly.

Two Rwandan women catching up while waiting for their bus as I was taking an uphill walk. Rwandans are among the world’s friendliest people. Expect a wave and a smile when people see you walk by.

“It seems that hardship, in forcing us to exercise greater patience and forbearance in life, actually makes us stronger and more robust. From the daily experience of hardship comes a greater capacity for accepting difficulties without losing an inner sense of calm” – the Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion

Isn’t that a beautiful reassurance that out of this runaway pandemic, there is something positive we can do with our lives? Working in global emergencies for a long time, reminded me one more time that we humans have the capacity to endure suffering and rise above it when we keep our mind in a noble goal. I have witnessed this in so many survivors.

Many hotels and restaurants are almost empty. In my first week, I was the lone guest living on the hotel’s 3rd floor. But it is also a great time to bond with staff and workers! That’s what travel is all about – meeting people from different walks of life.

One important part of every trip is bringing a positive spirit and spreading it around you. There will be times when you get annoyed or disturbed during the trip, but be ready to shift gears and tell yourself that the world is already faced with a huge threat. The best thing we can do it make it better. Kindness matters at this point.

Beyond Religion shares this reality-check and very timely advice from the 8th-century Indian thinker Shantideva:

If there is a solution, Then what need is there for dejection? If there is no solution, Then what point is there in dejection?

Now, let me leave you to that thought. The most important take-away I have from Beyond Religion is how you do the meditation process well. When you encounter some distractions, the Dalai Lama tells you to just go back without scolding yourself for giving in to the unwanted thoughts that crept in. Just go back and keep trying.

I think that’s the perfect advice that we must do all the time – we find the good and keep going back to it.

A mother and a baby moving slowly. Do you know that the city is also known for its thousand hills. Perfect for walking and running!

Next stop: #ExploringNature – Akagera Rhino Lodge

#MoroccoisAmazing: Goats on trees, how argan oil is made, the beautiful culture and camel ride to the Sahara

The Sahara Desert experience was one of my best unforgettable adventures. The sunrise was amazing! There is indeed no limit to God’s fantastic creation. Below is our desert camp accommodation.

“I believe that Marrakech ought to be earned as a destination. The journey is the preparation for the experience. Reaching it too fast derides it, makes it a little less easy to understand.” – Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams

I learned something new on this trip: When it is your birthday treat to yourself, it better be different. My 16 years on the road made that a tough challenge. What will I do? Where will I go? What kind of adventure can I still do without me buckling on my knees? In the end, I called the travel agent and booked Morocco. Deciding too long has cost me an additional US$400 more for my ticket, so I closed my eyes and confirmed. I told myself this better be worth it. It was, and more!

Check-outBohol, Philippines

The palm tree is an icon in Morocco! Do you know that there is an estimated 5 million palm trees in the country, many of them are 150 years old. Their role in everyday life cannot be understated – they provide shades and prevent soil erosion, among many other uses. This view was from the verandah of my room in Hotel Racine.

I did four stages for my 8-day trip: 1) Walking tour in Marrakech – ½ day, 2) Ourika Valley – 1 day, 3) Essaouira – 1 day and 4) Sahara Desert – 2 days/1 night.

I intentionally reserved 2 days for myself exploring the city and going to Jardin de Majorelle, where Yves Saint Laurent’s ashes were enshrined. The famous garden had been said to be his refuge after leaving the fashion world before his death. Wow, imagine walking in the same steps where the fashion icon had frequented.

European Holidays: Berlin, Germany

The villa inside Jardin de Majorelle designed by French architect Paul Sinor inside the garden created by French artist Jacques Majorelle. It is also where the ashes of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent was enshrined.

Surprisingly, hotels and riads (or townhouse with courtyard) are aplenty and amazingly designed. They are also affordable! My first 5 days were spent in Hotel Racine in Gueliz, the location is a 10-minute walk to the city center. It is clean, rooms are spacious and staff were very friendly.

My last 2 days I have to move to a riad right in the center because the hotel was fully booked. They were friendly enough to keep my luggage while I went to the Sahara. In every city I visit, I always book for a walking tour to get familiar with the landmarks. After that I prefer to be on my own. I prefer my holidays at my own pace, no rushing and early morning trips except for special ones I wanted to do.

Marrakech’s big square is a mish-mash of colors, bright and muted, but all a feast in the eyes. It was a pain not to buy anything. So tempting! But this time, I am determined to just enjoy the experience.

Tip #1: When you are taking a walking tour, make sure you agree with your guide where to go, what you want to see. If not, you can end up being taken around shops and being cajoled to buy things from carpets, argan and olive oils and all sorts of silver jewelries.

The Ourika Valley tour gave us a glimpsed of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains and the valley’s famous landmarks, the waterfalls and couscous lunch by the river. The view along the way are these open-air ceramics and trinkets shops.

Tip #2: Marrakech is easy to explore and generally safe. Just be careful with your things as you do in many other countries you visit. The Moroccans are very friendly and will always go out of their way to help you, even the taxi drivers and hotel staff.

Needing a mind-boost? On your way to Essaouira, the van will stop at these hilarious trees filled with argan-eating goats. I have never laughed to loud with my fellow tourists. These goats are in the serious business of balancing and eating on top of the tree, unmindful of the gawking tourists!

Tip #3: Do your research what you want to see before you leave home. I sat with 2 girls on holiday who have no idea where to go and what are Morocco’s important sites and landmarks. It is such a waste visiting the country and will never know what are the beautiful stories behind them.

The streets of Essaouira is a labyrinth of these amazing doorways, old colorful walls. This harbor city faces the Mediterranean Sea, a long coastline and beautiful port.

Tip #4: The best thing of traveling alone is you get to appreciate solitude more, and have more time to enjoy the sights. Even in a group try to find time for peace and quiet. That’s what holidays are supposed to be for.

Inside the luxe desert camp in the Sahara. The tour is an amazing experience!

Watch up next: The fun Marrakech maze!

From fighting to farming: The rise of the Kivu coffee

By Dede Monfiston

Sifa and her children. Kivu coffee has given her renewed hope that the children can go to school and have a better life.

When I landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the first question that came to my mind was, “How can a country be so rich in natural resources but its people so poor?” Many of those who dared visit or work in the country would likely ask that, too. DRC’s natural beauty is amazing but the endless armed conflict that has gripped the country has taken a toll to its people and resources.

My first trip to DRC was in 2012 when I managed a new development program in northwestern Congo which is close to the Central African Republic (CAR). I felt overwhelmed by both the challenges and the potentials. Are the people even aware of the vast opportunities around them? How can an outsider like me help? Is background and experience in non-profit organizations enough? The answers to questions in my head were not that promising.

When my assignment ended after nearly two years, I went home. My next posting sent me to Iraq but Congo kept haunting me. After a year in Iraq, I decided to find a way back to Congo. I got lucky – another organization hired me and my work focused on agriculture and roads infrastructure in eastern Congo.

During the first three months, my interest in building something that would help the Congolese people for long term deepened. Agribusiness always kept me interested but I did not know how, where and with whom to start. Then one day, a guy came to my office exploring support for former combatants. I found it truly interesting and promising. I started talking about the project with the decision makers in my organization exploring ways to help. It never went anywhere, unfortunately. It was quite a suspense on my part as my contract was also nearing its end.

Fresh hopes. A woman works at the coffee plantation with her child. The project enabled families to look at the future with bright promise for their children.

While at home early in the morning, our security guard handled me a business card from the cooperative guy asking to meet me. Curious, I decided to pay him a visit. He expressed his alarm that I will soon leave. He said, “Dèdè we don’t want you to leave. We need you and we want to offer you an opportunity mutually beneficial for you and for us.” The guy turned out to be Gilbert Makelele, the president of the coffee growers cooperative. It answered my question how to start.

After my contract, I went back home to spend some quality time with my family as I figured out potential business concepts. With my family’s blessings and support, I came back to DRC to support the coffee cooperative.

This time I have a lengthy chance to visit the coffee fields, talk to the cooperative members and learn the basics of the green beans business operations. I got introduced as a partner and business development strategist. It was both exciting and daunting. I have to do my job so I won’t let this people down. I need to get them connected to buyers around the world and enjoy the fruits of their hard work.

The cooperative is composed of more than 5,000 members under Gilbert Makele’s lead as president. More than a third of the members are women, with many of them coming from the Congolese Army and other armed rebel groups who have decided that they have enough of the fighting and want to focus on raising their children well.

Starting anew. Coffee-growing has allowed women combatants to shift to a new journey with their families.

The Groupement d’Intérêt Economique Coopérative des Planteurs et Négociant du Café du Kivu (GIE CPNCK) was created in 2012 by a group of young entrepreneurs with strong social responsibility and eager to help sow peace in the beautiful region of Kivu. Operating in the greater region which includes the Masisi, the south and the north Kivu, the cooperative today has more than 5,000 members composed of farmers, women, widows and former combatants.

One of them was Kitumani, 35, who lived in Idiwi Island. She spent five years in the army and describes the experience as horrible. Her expression said it all. An orphan at 12, Kitumani said she had a very difficult life. She got married at 23 and have five children. Now she is a coffee farmer and a breeder. She told me, “I learned to endure and how to survive life’s tough challenges.”

Sifa’s husband died in the Lake Kivu bringing green beans coffee illegally to Rwanda. The trip through the river is always dangerous and most of the people use rickety boats. To be able to earn for her family, she decided to join the cooperative and work properly to avoid the risks that led to her husband’s death.

Apilline Katambara Pendeza is the president of the Widows Association of the Idjwi Island. Her husband was also among those who braved the risks in the Lake Kivu. Apilline has her own coffee plantation and decided to join the cooperative to market her coffee. She hopes that, “With coffee growing, we can aspire for a better life for our children”.

The community now works together towards achieving quality life for their families.

When his father died and nobody can send him to school, 30-year old Koko joined the Congolese Army. His once-normal life was turned upside down. When an opportunity to leave came, Koko seized it and now works as a driver in the cooperative. Married for 11 years now, Koko is the president of the Ex-Combatants Association.

With the mission of being the catalyst for an innovative change, the cooperative aims to see the coffee growers freely in a fair, prosperous and environmentally friendly rural world. It has set objectives to improve the quality and quantity of the coffee production of its members; search for a niche market for its specialty coffee and improve the living conditions of its member and their communities.

It has always striven to implement its vision of a more just future reflected in the culture of its deep values: transparency and accountability; quality work and autonomy of coffee growers; respect for human dignity and protection of the environment.

Gilbert Makelele is bringing coffee growers and workers together to put Kivu coffee in the world map.

Since 2013, the GIE CPNCK set up the program “Peace Around Coffee and Cocoa in the Kivu” to assist the ex-combatants and their leaders, commonly called “warlords,” and to contribute to the stabilization of the Masisi area through agricultural socio-economic activities, coffee and cocoa combined with vegetable and livestock.

It was decided to start these activities in the red zone. These ex-combatants, determined to change their way of life, struggle to survive from the meager products of their fields and small livestock while waiting for their first harvest of coffee this year. The big challenge is to harvest the cherries, process it and have the coffee green bean ready for export. Some basic equipment is needed. We then need to find a market for the green bean since the local market is very limited.

There are many existing coffee cooperatives in Congo and Gilbert and colleagues are hard at work of creating the confederation of the cooperatives. The cooperative was created on 2012 and restructured in 2014. It dreams for the Kivu coffee to one day be sought by millions of coffee drinkers around the world. You can help make it happen. It will encourage more combatants to lead a life of peace with their families, bring stability in their communities and their beautiful country.

Note: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, also known as DR Congo, DRC, DROC, Congo-Kinshasa or simply the Congo, is a country located in Central Africa. The DRC borders the Central African Republic and South Sudan to the north; Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania to the east; Zambia and Angola to the south; the Republic of the Congo to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest. It is the second-largest country in Africa by area and eleventh largest in the world. With a population of over 80 million, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the most populated officially Francophone country, the fourth most-populated nation in Africa and the eighteenth most populated country in the world. – Wikipedia

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About the blogger: Dede is a happy family man who is a seasoned humanitarian experienced in development and emergency work. His quest to make a difference through projects such as health, water sanitation and hygiene, livelihoods and economic development took him to Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean regions. Besides a degree in Animal Sciences and Agribusiness, he has a Master’s Degree in International Management from Thunderbird School of Global Management. He speaks fluent English, French and Spanish.
Contact email: dedemf@global.t-bird.edu

 

Backpacking Livingstone and Victoria Falls

The awesome sight that is Victoria Falls.

“I determined never to stop until I had come to the end and achieved my purpose.” – David Livingstone

The Mashandu bus that would take us for a 7-hour ride from Lusaka to Livingstone town was almost an hour late (90 Kwacha one way). But it’s good to wait than rush. Erin and I busied ourselves people-watching at the busy bus station. We both agreed places like it were almost the same all over the world – hawkers egging you to buy all things imaginable (from tomatoes, eggs, bottled water, fake sunglasses and souvenirs). The colors, smell and frenzy kept us from getting bored.

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Winning Days with My Traveling Shoes

I took this photo at the outskirts of Lesotho in Southern Africa as winter broke and patches of snow blanketed the dry grounds in the morning. One of the poorest in the world, my Asian eyes found the landscape awesome. No, make that stunning.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

The shoes were an excuse. Regardless of brand or when it was bought, I was meant to go. But of course it matters that it is a comfortable one. Or else you’ll go home each time with a sprain.

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10 things 2011 taught me

A life-changing trip in East Africa that took me to Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.

When I visited Rwanda late last year, I knew it will be unforgettable.

The trip came so last-minute and ended up as one of 2011’s best trips for me.

There I met Beata (not her real name) and her three children. Except for the youngest, all of them got infected with HIV-AIDS. This woman survived it all.

How can I complain from my own challenges?

2011 was my 10th year in World Vision. I am not sure about the 11th but I believe I have already been given an overflow of opportunities, additional years are bonuses.

God’s little surprises where to take me next never cease to amaze me. I always put my seat belt on as I know it can happen anywhere and at any minute.

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