Wednesday, December 2, 2009 | A Look Back, Now That I’m Back Home

Yesterday afternoon I landed in New York City. It feels amazing to be home again, seeing my friends, walking the busy streets that feel so familiar and eating all the things I’ve been craving for months. There are moments when being back home seems like a dream. And then there are moments when I can’t believe where I’ve just come from and Rwanda seems like a dream. I’m sure the jet lag is playing a key role in this confusion, but regardless I want to have a little fun and take a moment to look back over my five months in Rwanda with what I’ll miss and what I won’t miss at all.

The Mosquito Net – Really it’s all things bug-related including the threat of malaria. Sleeping under the net starts off quite romantic, but after waking up for five months wrapped up in white mesh, the magic is gone.

“Muzungu, Muzungu” – While being chased down the street and pointed out everywhere you go can make one feel really special, after some time it starts to feel like one never-ending game of “One of these things is not like the others”.

African Time – In addition to everything starting late without any explanation or apology, telling time here is very confusing. Most people have cell phones with the proper time, but even still some operate using this archaic hour system starting at 6AM, or First Hour. So, a friend might say, “Let’s meet at 3.” You assume 3PM, but what he really meant was 8AM, or Third Hour. And don’t even get me started on 1AM to 5AM. Apparently there aren’t names for these hours because it’s when everyone is sleeping. The day we learned about this with our Kinyarwanda teacher, in order to even communicate what hours we were asking about, it took me describing an incident where a few hours after he went to sleep someone breaks into his home, then I asked, “So what time would you tell the police the incident happened?” Ugh. Thinking about it is my making my head hurt again.

Citrus-Flavored Fanta – Kind of a strange thing to start with but still… Coca Cola (“Coca”) and orange Fanta are available everywhere, but the citrus-flavored Fanta is much harder to find outside of certain places in the world. It was my beverage of choice in Rwanda, so I’m sure I’ll have some withdrawal.

Small Bananas – Bananas of all sizes are a staple in Rwanda, but the small, sweet ones are my favorite. Smother it in peanut butter, Nutella or chocolate sauce, and you’ve got yourself a treat. Most mornings I’d eat at least four or five of them. This habit started while staying at The Credo Hotel at the beginning of my time when the team from NYC was still there. After a day or two, the guy who ran the breakfast at the hotel would bring me my own bunch of bananas on a plate.

Phone Etiquette – Had I only stayed in Rwanda for a month or two, phone etiquette would probably have ended up on the “miss the least” list. But after five months of getting used to it, I’m going to miss the “beep” (or what some refer to as a “flash”). Rwanda’s cell phone system is a pay-as-you-go type of thing. You buy airtime when you need it and load it on your phone. Guys are all over the streets fighting with each other to sell you airtime. While most people have cell phones, they don’t always have a lot of money to buy airtime. I’m guessing this is one of the factors that inspired the beep method where you call someone and hang up after it rings once. In America this would make me very angry, but in Rwanda it’s actually communicating something. If you receive a beep it means one of three things: #1 “Hi” – that’s all, just a simple greeting, #2 Maybe you’ve just sent a text and instead of paying to send a text of his own, your friend beeps you in agreement to said text, and #3 (This one is my favorite.) If you are beeped twice in a row then your friend doesn’t have enough airtime, so he’s asking you to call him. Awesome, right? I mean, don’t try this at home – I bet it would still make me angry here in America.

Samantha – Enough fun and games with all the silly stuff in Rwanda. The thing, well person, I will miss the absolute most is my friend Samantha. I’ve never been to Rwanda without her – two previous trips and then this five-month adventure. We’ve been housemates, roommates, and even bedmates for a while. She is most definitely family to me now. We’ve annoyed each other and supported each other. Most of our sentences when talking to other people started with “we” because we did almost everything together during my time in Rwanda. She will stay there for another couple of years. I will miss her so much, but I’m so very grateful for the amazing journey we’ve been on together for the last five months.

There are a lot of other people and things I will miss. I could talk about them for hours, and I’m sure over the next few weeks I will do just that. Thank you for sharing this experience with me, reading the blog, sending me messages and all your prayers and support. I’m happy to be home, and I can’t wait to see what’s next! Stay tuned for the EP I recorded while in Rwanda. It should be ready in January. And keep checking!



Monday, November 30, 2009 | Saying Goodbye

This past Saturday, my last full day in Rwanda, was a day of goodbyes. Samantha invited our friends to come over in the afternoon. It was an incredible thing having all of these friends in one room because each of them holds a very special memory for me. Like Herbert, who introduced Sam and I to the group of genocide orphans, a meeting that inspired two of the songs I recorded here. Ronald and Vanessa, both songwriters who I shared my songs with in the beginning stages – something I rarely do. Vanessa sang beautiful harmonies over the chorus of a song called “God Is With Me” the night I played it for them for the first time, so when I recorded it there was no other way but for her voice to be on that song. Five members of Salus Populi, the band I played with on campus, were there to say goodbye. One of those five is Celse. He had the final version of the song we recorded together that week. Just as I suspected, the song sounded amazing. We shared it with everyone at the party and after it was finished Celse said he wanted to say something. He talked about what it meant for him to have this recording, the first original song he’s ever recorded. And he talked about what it meant to record that song with me. Then he told me that this song was his gift to me for inspiring him and encouraging him in his music. It was a moment I will never forget. Five months of playing music, writing, exploring and learning everything I could from this culture, led to this moment.

I am so grateful for these friends. It’s hard to say goodbye, especially not knowing when I’ll be back. But I know that I will, so this goodbye isn’t for good. Plus, I will carry these friendships with me always, no matter where I am, no matter where I’m going. My heart feels beyond full now having met these people, and that is a wonderful thing.


Sunday, November 29, 2009 | Last Minute Music Moments

To say that this has been a good week would be an understatement. While I’m so excited to go home, I’m trying to take advantage of every opportunity left here. I thought most of the music making was over though once I finished my recording, but then this week happened and I realized there was still time for more…

First, I went to visit the children’s choir that I recorded with a few weeks back. I wanted to give them a CD of the song we recorded, say thank you again, and maybe get a photo since I forgot to do that before. I got there just as their rehearsal was letting out. The woman who directs the choir doesn’t speak any English, so I handed her the CD, said thank you and we just smiled at each other. I turned to walk away and all of sudden some of the kids starting singing. They remembered the song and were singing it to me. It was such an incredible moment for me. So instead of just a photo, here’s a clip of them singing…

Later that night Sam and I visited our new friend Bertin. He works with children who contracted HIV from their mothers at birth. He encourages them to tell their stories to help others understand HIV and that it is no longer a death sentence. His hope is that the stigma and secrecy around HIV will be defeated as he inspires these children to have a hope in their future. It’s amazing stuff. Bertin is also a music man and aspiring producer. He has a small studio in his house. One of the boys in his kids program, Noah, sang on American Idol last season on the “gives back” episode. Bertin coached Noah for his performance and was there in California with him during the week of the show. The screensaver on the computer in his studio is of him and Noah with Alicia Keys.

But despite that amazing experience and these huge connections, Bertin is still in need of support for his program and for his music. Even the exposure from something as major as American Idol doesn’t change the day-to-day needs that he has, as well as Noah. He talked about needing something fresh and new for his studio to inspire music that would get people’s attention. Immediately I knew what to do. Two friends back home, Patrick Noth and Jess Purviance, gave me beat tracks to donate to artists here to use for new music. After listening to the first track Bertin knew there was a song in there. And I know that the music he makes from the tracks will have an important message. Bertin knows that there is power in music that can change minds and inspire new thinking. So, a huge thank you to Pat and Jess for giving this incredible gift to my new friend here in Rwanda.

The next day I found myself in another studio. This time with my friend Celse to record the song we have been working on together. We recorded with a producer named Pastor P (Patrick). The two of them had already recorded most of the instruments and the beat, so I came in and played some guitar and then Celse and I sang. The studio was much fancier than where I recorded in Butare, and Partick is a really professional producer. I think the song is going to turn out pretty great. The best part of the whole thing though was seeing Celse’s face as the final touches were being put on the song. This was the first original song he’s ever recorded. And to see his reaction as he heard his song come together was a priceless moment I will never forget. I’m so happy that I was able to be even a small part of it. Tomorrow he will bring me a copy of it. I can’t wait for you to hear it.

Just a few days left, but who knows what magical moments can happen!


Saturday, November 28, 2009 | Thanksgiving in Rwanda

Okay, before I tell you about our Thanksgiving here in Rwanda, pretend you are in a foreign country talking to someone who has never heard of Thanksgiving. Now, describe it to them. This is what I’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks. The harder I've tried to explain a holiday about pilgrims and Native Americans that somehow led to us stuffing our faces and passing out watching football, the more silly it's all started to sound. But there is so much to be thankful for, so let’s just focus on that.

I started Thanksgiving Day with another visit to the Gisimba orphanage. I took my guitar hoping for some sing-a-long time, but when I got there realized there was already an English class planned by two volunteers. I joined in and even did a little music lesson with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. It was wet and rainy, but there was a moment of sunshine after the class to play some guitar outside and take a few photos. We sang some Rwandan pop songs that I figured out how to play, I tried once again to explain Thanksgiving, but in the end it was silly photo taking that brought the most laughter to the group.

While I was away at Gisimba, Samantha and another roommate of ours, Rachel, were cooking up a Thanksgiving feast. Everything on the table looked like typical Thanksgiving food except the main course. Instead of turkey, we ate goat. I mean, we might be Americans but we are clearly in Rwanda. In addition to five of the six girls who live here, we had four other guests. We were five Americans, one Brit, one Aussie, a Canadian and a Rwandan. Just before we sat down to eat the power went out, and it stayed out the rest of the night. We lit some candles and dug right in. The food was delicious. Samantha made a pumpkin pie from scratch that was incredible. We shared Thanksgiving traditions from our families, which resulted in us singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” together. There was lots of laughter and plenty of food left over. It was wonderful.

As my time here in Rwanda is coming to an end, I’m more grateful than ever for my family and friends here and back home in America. It’s a strange feeling when “home” is more than one place, but that is definitely how I feel. And while life here has been challenging and there are certainly things I miss about the States, I know that I will leave a piece of my heart here when I go.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009 | Getaway in Gisenyi

Sunday afternoon I took a three-hour bus ride with my friend Sara to Gisenyi, a town in the Western Province of Rwanda on Lake Kivu. It was a beautiful ride through a part of the country I’d never been to before. The ground changed from red dirt to black volcanic soil, and because of this the landscape became even more lush and green than in other parts of Rwanda. Lake Kivu is gorgeous. It’s also full of methane gas, so I didn’t opt for swimming. We stayed at this incredible little place on the water called Paradise Hotel. And that’s truly what it was. When we arrived they told us there were no rooms available, but sure enough the manager found us a room (that was next to another empty room). Anyway, none of that matters because the place was magical and we had a wonderful time. There were acrobats and traditional dancers performing on the beach at sunset, and in the morning we sat by the water and enjoyed a big breakfast with a huge pot of coffee. We only spent one night, but I wish we could have stayed forever. Here are just a few photos. You can view more by using this link to Facebook. The first photo is the view from our room as I worked on this blog…


Sunday, November 22, 2009 | My First Rwandan Wedding

On Saturday, November 21, 2009, our friend Richard married his longtime girlfriend Naomi here in Kigali, Rwanda. When Richard found out that Samantha and I would be here for his wedding, he didn’t hesitate for a second to invite us to join in the festivities. Each time we mentioned it in the months leading up to the big day he would smile from ear to ear. And we would too; after all it would be our first Rwandan wedding.

The invitation said the church ceremony would start at 1:00PM. As we pulled up to the church just a minute or two before one o’clock, it began to rain. We noticed that we’d gotten there just as the wedding party was pulling in. We actually had to walk around Naomi at the entrance. Richard was already at the front of the sanctuary. Our American instincts told us we were late, but as we entered the church we realized that we were the only guests there already. We expected to have to wait. With the rain, the lack of guests, the fact that EVERYTHING starts late here, it seemed for sure. But it turns out weddings are the one thing that begin on time – no matter what. Luckily during the hour and a half long service the place filled up. The entire ceremony was in Kinyarwanda, so we didn’t get most of it. Of course there were parts that we didn’t need interpretation for – we’ve been to enough weddings to understand when they’re repeating vows or the giving of the rings. So instead of focusing on the familiar, I want to share the unfamiliar…

The entire wedding party sits and stands during the service like the congregation. There’s a row of chairs where the groomsmen are already hanging out, and then the bridesmaids come in and take the seat next to them. The bride and groom even sit through most of it. Once the entire bridal party took their seats, the church choir started the service with some worship songs in English. We sang along knowing it would probably be the only part we’d understand completely.

During the ceremony they take an offering. Richard and Naomi stood at the front holding gift baskets, and within moments of this photo being taken the baskets were full. This took place towards the end of the ceremony, when most of the guests had arrived. After the offering they walked over to a table to the side of the room and signed the marriage license, which they held up and everyone clapped. Soon after this the ceremony ended. There were a couple hours in between the church part and the reception part. During this time the bridal party drives around town in cars wrapped with bows like birthday presents. We opted for a stop at home to pick up my guitar for the reception and a drink with a few friends before joining an even bigger crowd at the reception hall.

A group of traditional singers and dancers performed at the reception. As hundreds of guests sipped on “Coca” (Coca Cola) and Fanta, the best performance group in Rwanda danced to the sounds of traditional Rwandan singing and drumming. They changed several times into different colorful outfits. For their last song they brought the bride and groom onto the dance floor and all danced together.

Next came the cutting of the cake, like I’ve never seen it before. It started with sparklers being lit around the table of cakes. Then they popped a bottle of champagne and confetti poppers while a woman sprayed something all over the cake table to put out the sparklers. It’s a good thing Samantha noticed that the cakes were covered in plastic because I wasn’t up for mystery spray and confetti covered cake. Then came the strangest part. They cut the cake into bite-sized pieces and the groomsmen and bridesmaids go to each table serving each person a piece. After everyone has had a taste they start giving whole cakes to special people, like work colleges and family. The cake portion of the evening is over when the last cake has been given out. In case you’re wondering, we didn’t get one.

After they get their special cake, the different groups stand and give their gifts to the couple. The bridal party lined up on and in front of the stage. Richard works in Nyamagabe where my sponsored children live, so the mayor of that district and his other co-workers stood and gave them something. This went on for quite a while until it was time for the gifts that don’t fit into a box…like a song, for example.

I wasn’t quite sure how the whole singing thing would go down, but from what I’ve learned so far here I knew to expect anything and just go for it. I knew it was my turn to come up because the emcee said muzungu and all the people stared at Sam and I, the only white people in the room. I went to the front and faced the wedding party and began to speak without a mic. Everyone in the room was motioning for the emcee to bring the mic over, but he wasn’t exactly with it. He started interpreting for me into it, but Richard wanted him to just hand me the mic. Eventually he did. I said a few words, but when I went to hand the emcee the mic to begin playing, he’d already walked back to his place. I guess he expected me to sing and play the guitar while holding the mic as well. He came back, got the mic and then left me there to play without any amplification. Everyone reacted to this too, but again the emcee was not with it. Finally he walked over and stood next to me and held the mic down toward the guitar, like with his elbow in my chin. I said, “Put it to my mouth.” He didn’t understand. So I grabbed his hand with the mic and repositioned it to my mouth. Within a few seconds of playing someone with the common sense the emcee lacked came with a mic to hold in front of the guitar. I performed with my back to the crowd, but Samantha said the Nyamagabe side was feeling it. Richard and Naomi seemed happy, so that’s all the matters to me.

Seconds after taking my seat, another song began to play over the loud speaker and a young man carrying his own mic started walking in slowly from the back of room down the red carpet that led to the bridal party. Apparently I was the warm-up act for local superstar Meddy. He sang a song I actually know the words to, so that was fun. It’s called “Amaramata” which means something about forever or eternity or something. He worked the crowd a bit, sang to the bride and groom and then took a bow when the track faded out and left. Then the reception was over.

At this point, after the hour and a half ceremony and the three-hour reception, Sam and I thought the festivities were over. We met a friend at a restaurant near our house and started to wind down from the busy day. A few minutes after we ordered our food Sam’s phone rang. Apparently there was a next phase that took place at Richard’s house where they serve dinner to a smaller number of guests and we were missing it. There was also apparently a dancing portion that would happen at a nightclub after that. Sam apologized for the misstep on our part and promised her presence at the after party. I, however, opted out because I had an early bus to catch the next morning. (You’ll hear about that in the next blog.)

So, all in all, my first Rwandan wedding was a great experience. I am so grateful for friends here like Richard and Naomi. I wish them a lifetime of love and happiness. And if Richard’s smile everytime he sees his bride is any indication, I think that’s exactly what they are in for.


Friday, November 20, 2009 | Songwriting With Celse

In addition to the recording project I’ve been working on here in Rwanda, I’ve had a few chances to work with local songwriters, from putting music to their lyrics to just having jam sessions listening to each other’s stuff. It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of what’s being created here. I’ve also been asked by several people to either write a song for us to sing together or to come to the studio and sing on something they’ve recorded. That’s not exactly how my songwriting process works, so unfortunately one of these arrangements hasn’t worked out just yet.

So, I’ve mentioned a guy named Celse in previous blogs. He is a singer in the Salus Populi band from the University, and he’s the one who teaches the guitar class I visited on campus. Last week I met with Celse in town here in Kigali (most of our NUR friends are in the big city for their holiday break). I gave him some materials for his guitar class, and he shared with me that he’d written a song in English that he wanted me to hear and help him with. A few days later he came over with his guitar and we played through the song together. I helped him with some of the language. We’d talk about the meaning of each line and then figure out the best way to say it so that it makes sense but still has the right feel for the song. By the time our songwriting session was over Celse was convinced we should record it together in the studio.

Today Celse came over for a rehearsal. He thinks we can get into the studio next week to make it happen (I leave Rwanda in 9 days!!). He wants me to sing a whole verse and harmonies throughout the song. To help me prepare for the studio I recorded us singing and playing it together today on my portable equipment. We sat under the laundry line outside. The best part of the recording is when our cook, Nadina, walks out to leave. You hear her throw some stuff in the trash and her heels as she walks by and says, “See you.” If you listen closely you might even hear other sounds of Rwanda. Hopefully before I leave here there will be a polished studio version.

The song is called “I Wanna Know You”. It's about wanting to know a person on the inside. You can listen to it with the player in the right column of this page. Enjoy!


Sunday, November 15, 2009 | A Full Week in Kigali

We are officially residents of Kigali…and we LOVE it!! This city has so many more options as far as food and entertainment go, so it’s been a very nice change. Here is the view from our living room. It’s pretty spectacular.

The highlight of this week was recording with the Hareb Choir at the Baptist church in the Kacyiru area of Kigali. The choir is made up of 30+ children and teenagers. I was so overwhelmed by the process of teaching the words and recording with the choir that I forgot to take a picture. I’m hoping to visit them again this week so they can hear the finished version of the song, so hopefully we can snap a group shot then. For those of you who know the song, the children’s choir will be singing the repeat chorus at the end of “There Is” – the part that says, “Love, love, love, love, hope, Lord, there’s hope, peace, there’s forgiveness” but in Kinyarwanda. They did an amazing job. I can’t wait for you to hear it!

Another big day for me was when I returned to the Gisimba Memorial Center orphanage. It’s a place I’ve been four times before, but this was the first time without a team of muzungu. It was wonderful to see so many familiar faces. The children there are incredible. They’ve had lots of exposure to foreigners coming through to volunteer and teach different things, so they jump right in to the fun the minute you show up. Children all over Rwanda are out of school now for the holidays, so that means the orphanage is beyond full. They are housing over 140 right now ranging from 2 years old to 20 years old. The girls in this photo are Aimee and Naomi. Over the past two years I’ve seen them grow and change so much. Naomi ran to greet me with a big hug. And Aimee and I looked at photos from a previous visit on my iPhone. She’d scroll through them and when she’d get to one of us she’d point us out and say our names. It was really cute. I’ll be going back there this week with a guitar to have some sing-a-long time, so there will be more cute moments to report, I’m sure.

And yet another fun event of this week was going to my first Rwandan soccer match at the Amahoro (Peace) Stadium here in Kigali. The stadium is actually just a 15-minute walk from our house, so Sam and I were joined by all of our roommates (six total – I know, crazy!), plus a group of guy friends we know from the university in Butare who were very excited to cheer on their team against Zambia. We had such a good time. There was a lot of team spirit happening. Guys wearing the Rwandan flag and monkey masks, one dude painted head to toe in the national colors, and us in our newly purchased jerseys. The game itself wasn’t really anything to write home about. They tied. Zero to zero. No goals. Nada. Wapi. And apparently that means Zambia won because Rwanda was the home team. Oh well, we still had fun.

So that’s just a taste of life here in Kigali. I have appointments this week to meet with a producer, work on music with other songwriters, and I’ll be singing at my first Rwandan wedding this weekend. So the fun has only just begun. These last two weeks in Rwanda are going to be awesome!


Monday, November 9, 2009 | Jemima

Fresh from the Ubuntu Studio, here is the latest version of "Jemima". I thought it would be best to listen to the song while looking at the sights and faces of Rwanda, so I threw this video together with footage from previous trips. I hope you like it!


Thursday, November 5, 2009 | The Asanti Children’s Choir

After only two days in Kigali, I found myself right back in Butare for some meetings and to finish up at the studio. This morning I visited the Africa Mission Alliance. It’s an organization focused on orphans and widows all over Africa, starting right here in Rwanda. In January, they took 24 orphans who were already in their sponsorship program and formed the Asanti Children’s Choir. This morning they gave me a private concert. It was incredible. The children have been learning English, so when they sing the words you know they understand them. They started with a song about Africa rising from a history of slavery, deception and poverty. It was so powerful to hear these words spoken in the voice of a child with such conviction. I fought back tears as I watched them dance and sing with so much joy. After the performance I asked them, without an interpreter, why they love to sing and what they want to be when they grow up. They each answered in English. Their answers filled my heart with such hope. So many of them wanted to be singers, dancers, musicians, and one boy even said he wanted to be a songwriter. And when asked why they love to sing, one boy responded, “Because God brought me out of the place where I was, so I want to sing to Him because I’m happy.”

The Asanti Children’s Choir is planning a tour of America and Canada. Asanti means “thank you” in Swahili, so the tour would be a way to thank those who are sponsoring them as well as raise awareness for the organization. Please take a look at their website and read more about this incredible organization.


Monday, November 2, 2009 | Our Last Week in Butare

For my last month here in Africa, Samantha and I will be living in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. We’re upgrading from small town Butare to the big city! But before I get too wrapped up in the bright lights of Kigali (and by bright lights I really mean any lights at all), let me tell you about our last week in Butare…

Samantha paid a visit to the village early in the week and visited Rosemary. She is one of the beneficiaries of a house built here in Rwanda. It was actually on my first trip in February of 2008, so I have very fond memories of carrying bricks on my head, throwing mud, and playing with the children who live in what became Rosemary’s neighborhood. Apparently she asked Sam when she’d be able to pay us a visit in Butare, and of course Samantha answered, “How about Thursday?” Rosemary was supposed to take a mini-bus into Butare around noon and call us when she reached town. Well, around 10:30 in the morning the phone rang and Rosemary was already here. We quickly got dressed, and luckily our friend Jean Marie was there so he stuck around to translate. Rosemary spent like three hours at our place talking about the business she started in her home – what we fondly refer to as “Rosemary’s Bodega”. During our talk lunch was prepared, but by the time it was ready Rosemary had to head back home for a village meeting. We sent her with a to-go plate that she stuffed into her purse. She told us that she couldn’t eat and run because then she’d get sick on the bus ride. We understood completely. You shouldn't risk it on a mini-bus.

Since Butare is where the recording studio is, it was important for me to finish up there before making the big move. So this week was full of trips to the studio to record the fourth song called “A Mother’s Love”. My friend Adolph plays piano and sings on this song inspired by Rwandan young adults returning to Rwanda for the first time after being adopted by families in Belgium when they were young children. I also recorded a fifth song called “God Is With Me” with my own recording equipment and the help of my friend Vanessa who added her beautiful voice to the track. I will return to Butare on Friday to hear the final mixes and make any last minute changes. Then it will be time for you to hear these songs. I can’t wait!

Another highlight to this last week in Butare was an invite to a party thrown by Salus Populi, the band I played with in August at the National University. Their manager stood up at one point to encourage them about the year ahead and give a preview of the opportunities they’d have to play. He reminded them that they were the best. It felt good to be a part of their extended family. I’d just come from the studio, so at one point they asked to use my guitar. Jackson, the lead guitar player (and resident goofball), took the guitar and played tunes everyone could sing along to. We had so much fun that the hotel staff had to ask us to quiet down. I look forward to coming back to Rwanda someday and playing with them again.

This move to Kigali is just another reminder that my time here is coming to an end. I am just a month away from returning to America. It’s been quite an adventure (and it’s still not over yet), but I realize that it’s time to get some serious business done. I’ll be coming back with an EP of songs written and recorded here in Rwanda. It’s something I wasn’t sure was possible, but now it’s all coming together. The EP will be called “The World Should See Her Face” with five new songs and new recordings of “Those Hills” and “There Is”, the songs I wrote after a previous trip. Here is a sneak peek from a photo shoot for the new album, shot in the hills of Butare this week.

Like I said earlier, life here in Kigali is definitely an upgrade, but Butare will always have a special place in my heart.


Monday, October 26, 2009 | Recording in Rwanda (Part 1)

I decided to make this blog a “Part 1” because I’m sure there will more to report from the studio as recording continues. Right now we have an almost-finished version of the first song (“Jemima”), a second song (“More Than War”) with all the parts recorded that just needs some mixing, a third song (“Peace Survives” – about a girl named Peace, not world peace) in the beginning stages of recording and a fourth (“A Mother’s Love”) still in rehearsals. These four songs will be recorded at the Ubuntu Studio here in Butare with producers Braouz and Amir. Neither speaks much English. I am learning to truly communicate through the language of music. Most days the studio manager, Felix, translates for us. Today Felix wasn’t around. At one point I said, “Okay, the ba ba ba ba – yego (yes), the baba baba – oya (no).” Broauz understood, believe it or not, and so despite our major language barrier, today was a successful day in the studio. I am certain that it is because of Broauz’s natural ear and musical instinct and not my shoddy Kinyarwanda.

One of the highlights of recording is the instant feedback I can get right there in the studio. I have never been there without at least a half a dozen random guys hanging around or just dropping in to see what’s going on. Sometimes all of them squeeze into the tiny space where the producer works outside of the recording booth. My music is clearly different than the stuff they usually record there, but the response I’ve gotten so far has been really positive. A few times I’ll meet someone for the first time but they’ve already heard the song and so they talk to me about it. Normally I’d be a more protective over unfinished, new music, but there’s no place for that kind of control in Rwanda. It’s all about sharing here. The other day, when we were recording the initial guitar and vocal tracks on “More Than War”, there was a young guy hanging around who was very interested in watching me play the guitar. Turns out he’s a solo guitar player, so after I recorded the rhythm track he went to town on a solo line. It was incredible. His name is Clement, and I’ve very glad he was just chillin’ in the studio that day.

One last photo from today… This is Thierry recording percussion using a wooden drum shaped like half a sphere. The flat part goes on the ground and then Thierry sits there and beats on it. It sounds very African, which I like very much. The other day Felix called the music we were making "Afro-rock". Again, normally I'd get all bent out of shape by someone trying to categorize my music, but "Afro-rock" made me very happy. I can’t wait for you all to hear it!


Wednesday, October 21, 2009 | Two Days in Nyamagabe

When I decided to come to Rwanda for six months, I thought for sure I’d be spending a significant amount of that time in the village, in Nyamagabe. That’s where my sponsored children are, where I spent most of my time on previous trips, and where I initially fell in love with this place. But for several reasons (like all the awesome music stuff happening in Butare and also World Vision’s yearly schedule) Sam and I haven’t spent as much time in the village as we imagined we would have at this point. And now that our time in Butare is coming to an end (we’re moving to Kigali in a couple weeks!) we’re desperately trying to make up for it. So, here’s a breakdown of the past two days, both spent in Nyamagabe:

Day One: Samantha and I made appointments to visit the children we sponsor through World Vision at their homes. We’ve both seen our kids several times but always as a part of a big sponsorship party. This was the first time we’d get to visit them at home. Sam’s day was first, so on Monday we boarded a minibus for our 30-minute ride to Nyamagabe town. We arrived at the Golden Monkey Hotel (yes, you read that right), our meeting point, a little early. We debated having some tea but opted to have a glass of milk instead. The word for milk in Kinyarwanda is amata, and if you see this word on a sign above a store then you know you can go there for a fresh glass of milk. Awesome, right?

We spotted “amata” and walked in feeling confident and excited about the new experience just moments ahead. We weren’t in the store for five seconds when Samantha said, “I’m not going to be able to do this.” The smell of that place was where I’m certain the whole crying over spilled milk thing originated. Only these people had every reason to cry. Our eyes were watering just breathing for the few seconds we were in there. We exited quickly, but our mission was not abandoned. We wanted fresh milk. Sure enough we spotted the word “amata” on another store in the same complex. This time we didn’t smell anything, but we also didn’t see any milk. When we asked the storekeeper he ushered us into a backroom where there was a table and a few stools. We told him what we wanted and within seconds he brought out a pitcher and two glasses that he filled to the brim with fresh, thick, cold milk.

Now, let’s take a moment for questions… What’s with the backroom? Well, I’m glad you asked. I didn’t mention this earlier but in the first place, the one with the stench, there was a blue curtain hanging in the door to shield the outside from what goes on indoors. In this culture it’s not appropriate to eat in front of people, like when you’re walking down the street and whatnot. This hasn’t exactly stopped us from ripping into our groceries before we get home because we’re hungry, but the whole milk-on-the-go thing makes it a little more complicated. So the backroom is totally understandable. Have you ever had fresh milk before? My answer to this question is no. Samantha’s, however, is yes. So when she took a big swig from her glass and said that it was good, I was all the more excited to taste mine. I’ve never wanted to spit something out so badly in my life. Cold, yes. Thick, yes (I’m not sure why this is a good thing). But fresh, I’m not so sure. Or maybe it was too fresh. Apparently what we were drinking was more like buttermilk. All I knew was that I couldn’t put another sip of it in my mouth. Samantha finished about half of her glass (Thank you, FFA, for the training in tasting fresh milk). We combined what we had left into a water bottle and gave it to some street boys. They seemed very happy, so it was a 100 francs (about 20 cents) well spent.

Milk mission accomplished (well, sort of), it was finally time to meet up with the World Vision staff to go see Samantha’s kids, but because of rain earlier in the day the truck was running late. We sat outside the hotel to wait and just like everywhere we go in the village, we drew a crowd. Our boys who got the milk hung around, some guy on a motorcycle came up and introduced himself and said he’d be back in ten minutes (no clue why and we never saw him again), and then there were a few people who just stood across from us and stared. The staring happens everywhere but this was just ridiculous. The only way to get them to stop is to stare right back at them square in the eye, so that’s what we did…but only after snapping this photo.

When the truck finally arrived we started on a very long, uphill journey to where the three children live. I don’t know if it was the rain earlier in the day, the fact that it was getting dark or just being at a higher altitude, but it felt like another world where we went. It was freezing! Sam and I both had hoodies on while these kids ran alongside the road with shorts and bare feet. We arrived at Xavier’s house and were told he was fetching water. We took a seat inside his home as the light outside got dimmer and dimmer. When Xavier finally came running in with a smile and a bear hug for Sam, it was almost completely dark. It was so dark that we had to reschedule the visits with the other two children for another day. Fortunately, World Vision gave us a ride back to Butare, so we didn’t have to ride the minibus after dark. It was time to rest up for Day Two!

Day Two: For our second day in a row spent in the village we took the 10AM bus. It was my turn to visit my sponsored kids at their homes. Our meeting point was the World Vision office where we found Damascene. He’s the one who has the most contact with the children. We’ve worked with him on almost every visit as a translator and coordinator for the big child/sponsor parties we have when we’re here with a team. He can most often be spotted on a motorcycle. That’s how he gets around to all the remote places where the children live.

Our first stop was Martin’s house. I’ve been sponsoring him since 2006. After a long, winding ride we found ourselves on the road just below his house looking up at him and his sister, Francois, welcoming us. His mother invited us into their home. We spent some time just catching up and asking and answering some questions. Samantha noticed that Martin’s sister felt feverish and she had a bloated belly. The mother told us that they’d already been to the hospital and had the medicine to treat her for worms. I am hopeful that little Francois will be better soon. I will check up on her before we make the move to Kigali next month.

After lunch at the Golden Monkey Hotel (yes, again, that’s the name alright) we loaded back into the truck and headed to Uwamubona and Consolee’s house. They are sisters. I’d been told before that they live near the Murambi Memorial site, a place I’ve visited a couple times where over 50,000 Tutsis were gathered, starved and murdered during the genocide. The stories from the survivors who work there, Emmanuel and Juliet, inspired the song “There Is” on my last album. It’s a striking place with room after room filled with bodies preserved with lye, bones and skulls, and even a room full of clothes and other items from the victims. We literally parked just outside the gate of the memorial site to walk a little further downhill to where Uwamubona and Consolee live.

The girls’ father, who I’ve met four times now as well, greeted us outside the gate of their home. He welcomed us into the house where the girls were waiting for our arrival. They were so cute. One by one they got up and gave me a big hug. I got to meet their two brothers, one older and one younger, for the first time. And after we were there for a few minutes their mother arrived whom I’ve met once before. Everyone in the family seemed to be doing well. They had fresh cassava crops laid out ready to cook, the goats I’d given them tied up in the back, and when asked what they’d learned today in school Uwamubona began reciting numbers in English. It was adorable. One of the first things I noticed when I walked inside the house was a collage of photos on the wall. There were three or four photos there that I’d sent them in the mail after meeting them for the first time. I told the girls that I had photos of them hanging in my house, too.

After a quick visit at Damascene’s to meet his wife and two daughters and sip on some Fanta, we got a ride back to town to catch the 4:30PM minibus back to Butare. It was an overwhelming day for sure seeing the kids, their families and their homes. There is so much more I want to do for them, but I don’t know how. I’m grateful for World Vision and what they do everyday to support the community of Nyamagabe, and I’m hopeful that there will be many more opportunities in the future to be involved here in the village and in the lives of these children.


Saturday, October 17, 2009 | A Sneak Peek of "Jemima"

Here's a quick clip from the studio of Thierry recording some percussion on "Jemima"...


Friday, October 16, 2009 | If Rwanda Had a Tabloid

Sometimes living here in Rwanda as an American is what I imagine Madonna might feel like if she moved to Small Town, USA. She’d stick out like a sore thumb...just like we do here. We are constantly stared at – even in a college town like Butare. There are even times when someone walking alongside or toward us on the street will reach over and touch us as they pass. Like, what does white skin feel like? Mothers in the villages want us to hold their babies or make their young children wave back to us as the kid looks at us like, “What happened to that girl? She’s white.” It’s crazy. The word for “white person” or “foreigner” or “rich person” is muzungu. It’s a word we hear everyday. So, to give you some insight on everyday life and to poke a little fun at ourselves, here is our Rwandan version of US Weekly featuring “Muzungus, They’re Just Like US!”…

Click image to view larger.


Thursday, October 15, 2009 | This Made My Day

Some friends in New York City sent this to me and Sam a couple weeks ago. I've been trying since to get it up here because it absolutely made my day...and continues to make me happy every time I see it. They claim that this is an audition tape to be my back-up singers. They got the job! (Even if they don't know all the lyrics to the chorus.) Props go to Betty who actually used props (well, some African fabric and air guitar). These are friends who have traveled with us on previous trips to Rwanda. I wish they were all still here with us sitting out on the porch of the Ibis, laughing and telling stories with Ralph at the end of the table wearing his headlamp, ready for a power outage. Love you guys!!


Thursday, October 8, 2009 | Way Too Long Without A Blog

I’ve been a very bad blogger over the past couple of weeks, so to make up for it here are FIVE THINGS I SHOULD HAVE TOLD YOU ABOUT BUT DIDN’T:

#1 A couple weekends ago we attended the Miss Campus competition at the National University of Rwanda. The auditorium was packed by 6PM when the event was supposed to start. Sometime around 8PM the emcee for the night finally took the stage to begin the show. I had to leave before the interview portion because it was midnight and I was falling asleep in my seat. However, I did get to enjoy three rounds of different outfits being paraded onstage, some mediocre filler entertainment during the wardrobe changes, and the opinionated crowd cheering or jeering for each contestant. More than once I had to ask myself, “Where am I? What is going on?” But then again, I ask myself those questions on a daily basis here in Rwanda.

#2 Last week I was asked to stop by a guitar class on campus taught by a student named Celse. He is a singer in the Salus Populi band that I played with in August. There were ten students there that night with five or six guitars loaned by others for the class. They’ve been studying guitar for two months. It was so amazing to see their enthusiasm. They played for me two songs in the key of Do…they don’t do keys by letter here (which, by the way, makes it kinda hard to communicate during rehearsals). Then they asked me to play something. I went with part of “New York is Like a Boyfriend” – they all strained to see the chords I was playing and seemed rather impressed. We had some Q&A, a group photo session, and then a time of examining the calluses on my fingers. They asked for one more song, but this time as I played most of the guys in the class pulled out there cell phones and took photos and videos of me and my hands. It was a pretty funny moment, but I tried to hold it together and be professional.

#3 This past weekend Samantha and I took a road trip with two friends to the Northern Province of Rwanda to visit the Akagera Game Park. We stayed overnight in a town about an hour or so away and woke up very early to get to the park when it opened at 8AM. Now, just a word about the wildlife in Rwanda…One of the top tourist attractions in the country is the gorilla trek in the volcanic region. It costs $500 for foreigners, so it is not on my list of things to do here. In the Southern Province, where we live, the only animals to see are goats, cows, the occasional pig and some chickens. So it was a big deal to travel to the only part of Rwanda where there are animals that make you think of Africa, you know, lions, zebra, giraffe… We were very excited. We knew going into it that we wouldn’t see the lions. Apparently they only come out at night to eat other animals or people if available, so I was okay with missing out on that. But when we arrived at the park our guide told us that we wouldn’t see zebra or giraffe either. We were disappointed for like five minutes before we drove past a giraffe and all was forgotten. She was beautiful, an amazing creature. We got out of the car and walked along the road as she moved. It was one of those moments when you want to just pinch yourself.

Later on our journey we saw buffalo, crocodile, impala, antelope, several different species of birds, wild boar and a family of hippos standing outside the lake. The most common animal to spot in the park is the baboon. They are everywhere. At one point we got out of the car to get a closer look at the hippos in the water (Why? I don’t know. We’re crazy.) and a baboon came out of the bush to inspect our car for food or other loot it could get it’s human-like hands on. It was wild. We stood there with all this nervous laughter as the baboon climbed on top, walked around the sides and tried all the handles on the car until eventually realizing we were useless humans with nothing to steal. It was an amazing adventure!!

#4 Okay, we’re almost caught up…Last night I was the special guest on-air at Radio Salus for my friend Richard’s show, Soul Line. We kicked off the hour with “It’s Not Love”. We talked about learning Kinyarwanda. I showed off my skills with phrases like “I want to go to town” and “How much money do you want?” I shared the meaning behind my songs as we played seven tracks off the latest album with a live on-air performance of “There Is”. It was so much fun. Unfortunately there was a malfunction with the computer that was supposed to be recording the show. The good news is that earlier in the week Richard and I did a short interview at my house that aired while I was at Akagera, and that one I’ve got to share. You can listen to it right now using the music player on this page. Check it out!!

#5 This brings us to today…my first day in the Ubuntu Studio here in Butare recording the songs I’ve written during my time in Rwanda so far. Ubuntu means “humanity to others” and the goal of the studio is to use music as a way of promoting healing and reconciliation. I’ve got five songs to record but we’ll take it one at a time. I’m excited about the possibility of an EP written and recorded entirely here in Rwanda with Rwandan musicians and producers. That’s the goal. We’ll see… Today I recorded vocals and guitar on the first song I wrote here. It’s called “Jemima” after a woman we visit on every trip. Her smile is unforgettable.

So, now we’re all caught up. I have just a little over two months left here in Rwanda before returning home to America. I miss home more and more everyday. But I am certain there are still some surprises ahead on this journey, so I’m going to soak up every moment!

Urukundo (Love),

Monday, September 21, 2009 | A Taste of Hip Hop in Rwanda

Tom Close is a local celebrity here in Butare, Rwanda. For the launch of his sophomore album, he brought some of the best hip hop and R&B performers in East Africa together for one major night of music at the National University of Rwanda. Here are a few clips with some explanation and commentary...


Friday, September 18, 2009 | Journey to Bujumbura, Burundi

This week Samantha and I, along with our friend Karen who lives in Gitarama, traveled south to Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi, Rwanda’s neighbor. We went on a wild bus ride that took us through border control and dropped us off in Bujumbura four hours after departing Butare. From the moment we left Rwanda, we missed it. The four days we spent there could not have gone by fast enough. Okay, maybe the three of us are biased and we just love Rwanda too much to enjoy time away in a neighboring country. So, in order to give you a proper idea of what Bujumbura, Burundi, is really like, I’ve decided to stick to the facts (while adding only a smidge of my own commentary). With a little help from the Internet, here are...

Eight Things You Might Not Have Known Yesterday About Burundi (especially if yesterday you didn't even know Burundi existed):

1. Languages Spoken: Kirundi, French & Swahili
(NOTE: English is NOT on this list.)

2. Main Export: Coffee (Although based on what we saw at the Central Market, I think Obama backpacks might be taking over this season.)

3. Average Temperature: According to, for September the average high is 31 degrees Celsius. (Celsius means nothing to this American but that same chart had a column for “Discomfort from Heat and Humidity” where September was marked HIGH…this is a vast understatement.)

4. Religion: 5% Protestant, 10% Islam, 23% Indigenous and 65% Roman Catholic (We stayed at a Catholic guest house next door to a giant Catholic church. They had services every morning. Loud Services. The best part of staying at the guest house was the drinking water they kept in the rooms in bottles formerly used for some Sweet Superior Altar Wine.)

5. Currency: Burundi Francs, 1230 bfr = $1 (We got our passports stamped out of Rwanda and had to walk across the border to then have them stamped into Burundi. I call this in-between time Limbo – it also happens to be where the moneychangers are following you with tiny calculators and giant wads of Burundi and Rwandan Francs. Crazy.)

6. Main Attraction: The beach of Lake Tanganyika (Actually a really beautiful beach but no one was in the water…sketchy.)

7. Food & Restaurants: Okay, so there wasn’t anything about this category on any of my online sources. But seeing as after our first meal out (at a really nice restaurant I might add) I got very sick, I thought it was important to add to the list. Sam and I ordered the Mix Grill for Two. It was either the chicken or the goat sausage that kept me in bed the whole next day. I may never know for sure.

8. Three Words…Pink Toilet Paper. It was in abundance in Burundi. (Again, no online source for this one or even any cultural significance.)

All silliness aside, we actually learned some important things about Burundi’s history that correlate with what we know about Rwanda, about ethnic tensions, genocide and how these countries are choosing their own separate paths for recovery, healing and rebuilding. We heard the testimony of a man named Theo who is a Hutu. The first difference in the telling of his story is that he says which ethnic group he is and still calls himself that today. In Rwanda, they’ve put aside those categories and the government encourages everyone to only call themselves Rwandese. Theo’s story is incredible. He escaped death dozens of times, once at the Kenyan border with the help of a prostitute! He said, “I call it God’s providence but others might call it illegal immigration.” He was so honest about his struggle and about the tension still present in Burundi today. And he talked about how difficult forgiveness really was and still is for him. He also talked about his faith and how he fought with himself trying to reconcile what he’d seen with his eyes and what he believed about God. He said, “We are Christians. We are going to Heaven. But how do we sort out our lives until we get there.”

Most of the stories we hear here in Rwanda are from the Tutsi, they were the ones who fled Rwanda for safety and those that stayed were the target during genocide. But Burundi’s history is much more complicated and it’s recovery seems to be as well. I may not have enjoyed my time in Bujumbura. As a tourist, I have no desire to return. But as a person who is drawn to this part of the world and hopeful for its future, my heart wants the best for the people of Burundi, especially my friend Theo.

Sunday, September 13, 2009 | Samantha’s Cell Phone & The Street Kid

This story begins this past Thursday when our electricity went out in the afternoon and never came back on. An electrician had installed a new device at our house but failed to tell us that we had to make a payment that day in order to actually have power. After a candlelit dinner, Samantha and I made our way to town to charge our phones and our computers. After borrowing enough power from Hotel Ibis to last us the night, we decided to walk home. Along the way out of town one of the street boys who hang around outside the supermarket decided to join us. He asked us for money, for food, for a shirt. Samantha recognized him because our housemate, Scott, was preparing to take this young boy to his coffee farm to give him a job and teach him the business of coffee growing. His name is Halifa. He’s a really cute kid. At one point I noticed he was holding on to Sam’s bag and I told him to back up, but he continued to walk with us. Halifa knew enough English to ask us if we were going home, and when Sam said that we were and that he should go home too, he responded, “I don’t have a home.” Our hearts melted. We pressed on toward our house and suddenly Halifa stopped following us. Sam turned around and saw him running back towards town. A minute later she began looking for her cell phone. She remembered having it when the boy first started walking with us and then putting it in the front pocket of her bag, but now it was gone. I called the phone and someone answered but didn’t say anything. For a few minutes it was just street noise, so we turned right around and headed back to town hoping to track down Halifa and get her phone back. But of course, once we got to town the boy was nowhere to be found. We hopped on motorcycle taxis and headed back to our dark house.

The next morning Samantha left early in the morning to catch a bus to Kigali for a meeting. Around 8:30AM I heard some commotion going on outside my window. I looked out onto our porch and saw our house-helper, Virginie, and our neighbor, Thierry, having a conversation. I looked at my phone and saw that I had seven missed calls. (I keep my phone on silent while I sleep because my Rwandan friends like to send early morning “Good Day” texts. There’s a much better chance that I will have a good day if I read those texts after 10AM.) Anyway, within seconds Thierry was calling me from just outside the window. Apparently Scott had been trying to get a hold of me so that I could come identify the boy who took the phone. Thierry told me to get dressed and he’d drive me to town. (I found out later that Thierry had asked Virginie to come in and wake me up, but she refused. She knows I need my sleep.) As we drove up to the main part of town we found Scott on his bicycle surrounded by a swarm of street kids. Apparently he rode all over town rounding them all up into one place. Right away I pointed out the boy who took the phone. His cute face was unmistakable. I was 100% sure that the boy I pointed out was Halifa, but of course he was denying everything. Scott has a good friend who is a police officer who came and arrested the boy. I’m not sure why this next part happened, but the officer handcuffed Halifa to another boy (Other Boy) and began walking them toward the police station. Immediately Other Boy started crying. I didn’t know what to do, so I got back into Thierry’s truck to head home and let the police handle it. But before we could get out of town the police officer asked us for a ride to the station. So, Scott and the officer hopped into the back of the truck and the two street boys sat in the backseat along with another street boy (Street Kid #3) who Scott was planning to take to the coffee farm that day. At this point both boys in the handcuffs, Halifa and Other Boy, are crying and saying, “Mzungu (white person), I’m innocent (they said this part in Kinyarwanda).” Or they’d say, “Umva (Listen), Thierry” and try to plead their case to Thierry. As each moment of their crying and pleading went on I began to doubt if I’d picked the right boy. I certainly couldn’t be responsible for Other Boy going to jail. I didn’t point him out! But I was even beginning to doubt if I’d indentified Halifa correctly. I stuck with my gut though, even when we arrived at the jail and the officer escorted these two small kids into what looked like a medieval prison (iron bars, giant stone bricks, just missing a drawbridge). I stood there thinking, “Samantha, why aren’t you here to do this?! I just put two little boys in jail!!”

The rest of the day felt like a weird dream. Scott ran out of time to make the trip to his coffee farm, so he brought Street Kid #3 home with him instead of leaving him on the street for the night. SK3 rode Scott’s bike around our house like a hundred times and even joined us inside for lunch. After two trips to the electricity place we finally got power again, and then Samantha came home later that night. I caught her up on all the madness of the day. In happier news, she was able to buy a new phone while in Kigali and even keep her phone number (some things in Rwanda are surprisingly efficient and convenient).

The next day things seemed to be back to normal again…if normal is our night guard bringing his family to work, so we played soccer in the backyard with his three year old and then cooled off with some fresh pineapple that he cut up with a pocket knife…Normal, right? Anyway, the seemingly normal day took a quick turn toward the un-normal when Scott called just before dark and said we should probably go check at the police station to see if there was any news regarding the phone. At this point I thought the cell phone actually resurfacing was a long shot, but we hoped for the best and headed toward the station with our friends Patasse, Maurice and Karen (she was in town to go with us to Burundi the next morning…more about that adventure in another blog). As frightening as the medieval prison seemed during the day, it was even more daunting at night. There was an orange-tinted light that shined through the bars, and the only other light on the property was the tiny room where they brought prisoners in for questioning. None of the officers on duty knew our case, so we had to start from the beginning and tell them why we were there. We wanted to speak with the boy and see if he was ready to confess, so the officer went to get Halifa from the jail. A few moments later the officer walked out with a much older and much scarier-looking young man, probably early twenties, bulging muscles and an angry look on his face. We quickly told the officer that this was not the boy who took Samantha’s phone. (Turns out this guy stole a phone a couple of weeks ago.) So finally the officer figured out which case we were and walked out with little Halifa. He looked so frightened and frail after a night in jail. But even though it was obvious that he didn’t want to be there any longer, Halifa still denied stealing the phone. He even said that he’d never seen Samantha before which is not true. They had had many conversations even before the night he took the phone – she was the one who came to tell him that Scott was going to take him to the coffee farm. So, after the officer finished his questioning and Halifa still wasn’t changing his story, Samantha decided it was time for a new tactic. The boy was sitting against the wall, so she squatted down on eye level and took his hands while our friend Patasse translated. She asked Halifa to look her in the eye and answer truthfully whether or not he knew her. He said he didn’t. She said, “You know me. We’ve talked many times. You are calling me a liar.” He still wouldn’t look at her. She continued, “I’m not mad at you. I forgive you. I just want you to tell the truth.” At this point Patasse took over and began speaking to the boy. He told us that he said things to him about wanting to help him get out of here but that he had to tell the truth in order for us to help him. The boy began speaking and Patasse turned to Samantha and said, “There’s a story here. He’s beginning to tell me.” Within a few moments the boy confessed and said he knew where the phone was. We convinced the officer to allow the boy to take us there, so the officer put handcuffs on Halifa and the boy led us into town to a restaurant where a young man was holding the phone, waiting on a buyer in Kigali. We walked up, the officer, Halifa, Patasse and the young man walked inside the restaurant, and just a few seconds later they walked out with the phone. It was a Christmas miracle!! The officer wouldn’t release Halifa that late at night, so we brought him some food to hopefully make his last night in the medieval prison a little less miserable.

The next morning we left for Burundi very early, so Scott went to make sure Halifa was released. We got a text from him saying, “Yes, he is out and I got him some food.” So the story has a happy ending. Although there are still a few unanswered questions… Like, what happened to Other Boy? How do we restore Samantha’s phone to the English setting (it’s currently in French)? And what happened to the young man who was holding the phone (the officer took him in after he handed over the phone)? Even if we never figure it all out, I am grateful for this happy ending. And I hope that Halifa’s story continues in a good direction. I hope he does well on the coffee farm and grows up to be an honest young man. I hope our relationship with this young boy will continue long after the time we spent with him at the medieval prison. Hopefully this is only the beginning of our story.

Sunday, September 6, 2009 | A Week of Firsts

First Trip to the Hospital
First Kinyarwanda Lesson
First Double Date
First Meeting of a Fellow New Yorker
First Rotary Club Meeting
First Delivery at the Post Office
First Birthday Party

Yes, it was a week of firsts for sure. I thought we were pretty settled into life here and that I knew what to expect from day to day. Then this week happened and now I’m beginning to realize that there are “firsts” to experience everyday. This past week sure seemed to have a special dose!

By far the most eye opening first was the trip to the hospital. Sam needed to have a small procedure done. I’ll just say that it involved a sharp cutting instrument, some gauze, and quite a lot of iodine. Our med student friends got her an appointment with the best doctor in Butare, one of their professors at the University. After a consultation in his office we set a time to meet him at the hospital a little later in the day. We had to wait a half hour or so in the waiting room, which gave us time to observe the other patients. One man was passed out asleep in his street clothes with a catheter coming out of his pants…that was interesting. Finally one of the interns brought us into the room where the procedure would be done. I couldn’t resist taking a few photos. There was some iodine spilled on the floor that looked like fresh blood, dirty bed linens still on the operating table and supplies that looked like something out of an episode of Lost from the Dharma Initiative. Thankfully, when the doctors and nurses came in everything was prepared properly and everyone was very professional – outside of the one moment when they couldn’t find the proper tool and the doctor’s exact words were, “Anything, give me anything.” Other than that, it went perfectly – or at least the patient survived and is all better now, so we’re gonna call it a successful first!

As far as the rest of the firsts go…our first Kinyarwanda lesson gave me a headache – too much learning all at one time. I now have four pages of notes to memorize. I’m tired again just thinking about it. The double date was a good time. Sam and I learned that the word “friend” here has many meanings, mainly because there are no words for girlfriend or boyfriend. So, by calling someone “my friend” in a text message you could very well be declaring yourself in a relationship with that person. Needless to say, that conversation was eye opening and has completely changed our text messaging vocabulary. Meeting a fellow New Yorker was so refreshing. He heard us talking in a café and knew we were Americans. He was just passing through Butare on a solo journey through East Africa, so we spent the rest of the day talking about the city and then took him to the local Chinese restaurant. All three of us enjoyed a dose of home. Our first Rotary Club Meeting was one for the books. Our housemate Scott was inducted as a member. Sam became a Rotary Wife. And there was a raffle where someone won a goat. The meeting ended with a night of dancing at the local nightclub, Mellow Twist – quite a night. Let’s see…got my first package at the post office. It was stamped in America on August 11th and arrived the first week of September…not bad. We’d been getting all this mail for someone else for weeks, so it was a nice surprise to unlock our box and see something with a familiar name on it. And finally, the big finish to our week of firsts was a surprise birthday party last night for our friend Sandrine. We were told the party started at 8PM. The birthday girl arrived blindfolded a little before 11PM. Getting used to the nightlife here isn’t easy. Some things should naturally start late at night, but when you factor in African Time it becomes ridiculous. Regardless, we had a fun time eating cake and dancing with our friends.

Most days seem pretty slow here in Butare. It’s a quiet town, not much to do. But when I look back at a week like this one I realize that life is happening and we really are experiencing some incredible things. It makes me all the more excited about the week ahead. Who knows what’ll happen…there could be another batch of firsts around the corner.

Saturday, August 29, 2009 | The Concert Actually Happened!

After being postponed last Friday night because of the President coming to Butare, the Salus Populi concert finally happened on campus last night. It was incredible! These musicians and singers blew me away (I left after midnight, after they’d been playing for over four hours…and they were still going strong). I was so honored that they wanted me to be a part of their big night. And with that extra week to rehearse (Thank you, President Kagame), the songs really came together and we had so much fun.

The highlight of the night for me was singing “There Is” for the first time here in Rwanda. It was inspired by the survivors of the genocide who I met on my first trip here in February 2008. Singing the words, “There is love….hope, Lord, there’s hope, peace, there’s forgiveness…” with an auditorium full of Rwandans gave me chills. Unfortunately the battery died on the camera before we performed that one, but I do have a taste of the excitement of the night captured here on video of “It’s Not Love” and “Those Hills”…


Saturday, August 22, 2009 | African Tea & the Music Biz

I came to Rwanda to make music, to write songs, to collaborate with other artists, and to teach guitar. That’s why I’m here. So why when these things actually happen am I so surprised? Sometimes I don’t understand myself. Regardless, I am grateful that I can say already, just over a month into my time here, that the wheels are quickly turning, music is being made and this is only the beginning!

Tuesday I spent the afternoon alone wondering around town. I decided to have some African tea at Hotel Ibis, a place you are guaranteed to see someone you know. Sure enough, after a few sips my friend Zack sat down to say hello. He noticed that I had my notebook out and asked if I was working on a song. And of course, I was. I’ve been working on four songs actually, two nearly finished and the other two still in progress. As I sat there enjoying my African tea, visiting with a friend and just taking in all the activity going on in town that afternoon, the wheels began to turn again on one of those unfinished songs. And as I walked home, I found myself singing the missing pieces.

Later that night I met up with Samantha for dinner. Afterwards she wanted some African tea of her own, so we went back to Hotel Ibis. Within a few minutes we were joined by our friend and neighbor, Thierry. During the conversation Thierry began telling me about a friend of his at the University who works with musicians and live performers (not of the lip-syncing variety we’ve already experienced here on multiple occasions). He called his friend Jean Paul right there at the table and set up a meeting for the two of us the next day. Thierry knew there was a performance this weekend at the University and he wanted me to be in on it.

I met with Jean Paul on Wednesday. He’s my new hero. Jean Paul provides musicians the opportunity to perform live, he encourages singers to hire bands instead of singing over their recorded tracks, and most importantly he has begun a tireless effort to protect the intellectual property rights of artists whose songs are played here in Rwanda. He introduced me to the students who lead a group called Salus Populi, made up of 25 musicians and singers who perform regularly on campus and abroad. Jean Paul says they try to take traditional music and give it a modern feel. Then he asked if I would join them for their performance this weekend, singing three of my songs accompanied by the band. Of course my answer was yes. We rehearsed the next day. It went better than expected. They picked up on the chords and transitions in the songs pretty quickly, and by the third time we played each song I could tell they were getting the dynamics and whatnot. I left the rehearsal cautiously excited about the next night’s performance.

So, I heard about Jean Paul on Tuesday, met him on Wednesday, rehearsed with the band on Thursday, and now Friday is here and it’s time for the show. I was told to be in the auditorium for sound check at 4PM, so I called my favorite motorcycle taxi guy, Narcis, and road to campus with my guitar strapped to my back. When I arrived the stage was set, the sound was up and running and most of the band members were already running through some songs. I plugged in and began to warm up with them. Then, the phone rings. Jean Paul is told that the event will have to be postponed. The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, is coming to Butare on Sunday, so they have to take extra security precautions. The band, Jean Paul, everyone (myself included) was visibly disappointed. Apparently we will try again next Friday, so I guess this blog will have to be continued…

(Later that night I found myself once again sipping some African tea. Apparently it inspires ideas and it also soothes the soul.)

Sunday, August 16, 2009 | A Day as a Tourist

Rwanda is definitely becoming a home away from home…or at least Butare feels that way. Samantha and I have formed a list of things we want to see in other parts of the country, so every once in a while we will allow ourselves to be tourists in our new home. The checking off of our list started this past weekend…

On Saturday we visited the King’s Palace in Nyanza, a town about 30 minutes north of Butare. Our friend Joash met us at the bus station, and by bus station I mean the side of the road next to the gas station just outside of town. And by “bus” I mean mini-bus, like when you sit up straight your head touches the ceiling and your knees are pushed up against the seat in front of you and your shoulders are more than just brushed up against the person next to you – you’re practically snuggling. I’ll go ahead and mention now that Joash is 6’3”. We road the mini-bus to the town center of Nyanza, informed the driver we wanted to go to the King’s Palace, turned down his ridiculous offer to drive us there himself for an outrageous fee and found three motorcycle taxis to take us the rest of the way.

Nyanza turned out to be a beautiful town. The ride to the palace was relaxing on an open road that weaved through tree-lined streets and around the picturesque hills that make up the landscape of Rwanda. It was overcast for first day in weeks making the weather much more manageable than the heat we’d been enduring. (NOTE: While I enjoy taking pictures on the back of motorcycle taxis, I do not encourage this dangerous behavior. Although I’d like to point out that at one time during the ride all three of us were taking photos.)

We arrived at the palace, paid the resident entrance fee (how cool is that?) and started our private tour. Yeah, we were the only ones around that day. Go figure. We started in the modern palace where we had to take our shoes off and put on leather sandals. Each room had information about the history of Rwanda, how its boundaries have changed over the years and about the royal family. The King who built this modern palace died the year he was to move in, 1959, in an earlier wave of genocide that marked the exile for many Rwandans who never found their way back to their homeland until after what the rest of the world knows as THE genocide in 1994. Next to the modern palace are the traditional huts where the King lived. The main hut is where the King slept, entertained and heard people’s needs from the village. Then there’s a milk hut and a beer hut – I mean, what else does a King need? (NOTE: This photo is actually from several weeks ago. Turns out you have to pay 2000 francs to take pictures on the property of the palace. This is me in a replica of the traditional milk hut, taken at the museum in Butare.)

The next stop during our day as tourists in Nyanza was the graves of the King and his wife (well, the main one, I guess...he had several) who died during the genocide in 1994. The woman who gave us our private tour of the palace pointed us in the right direction. She said it was an eight-minute walk. I lost track once we found ourselves on a dirt road surrounded by people very excited to see mzungus (white people). We walked uphill, downhill and uphill again, and finally found ourselves at the right place. The graves were in this giant gated area. They were huge, made of black marble, reminded me of the graves I saw in Moscow at the Novodevichy Cemetery, very elaborate with photo carvings of their portraits. (NOTE: Once again, we weren’t allowed to take photos there without paying the fee. This photo is of a little guy who followed us from the main road. We heard his feet pitter-pattering all the way up to us.)

We left the graves and headed to the Rwesero Art Museum, which was included in the entrance fee to the palace. This walk took a lot longer than eight minutes. At one point we asked a man for directions to make sure we were headed the right way. He pointed us uphill, through a construction site, along a narrow path I am certain was made by the locals, not for visitors like us on a tourist adventure. Regardless, we made it to the museum, which turned out to be modern art. The sign at the front desk talked about giving Rwandan artists the freedom to express themselves through all mediums and methods. There were only a few traditional pieces in the museum. The rest were pretty out there, like the life-size ostrich in this picture. (NOTE: At this point we all gave up on not taking photos and starting shooting away. I mean, how could I pass up the photo-op that is Samantha pretending to be modern art in the wall frame while Joash stands there confused-looking in the background? Classic.)

After all the fact learning, uphill walking and art appreciating, all three of us were exhausted. We had the phone number of one of our motorcycle taxi drivers (you learn to collect numbers wherever you go so you can always call a ride), so we called him and told him where to find us. We waited on the balcony of the museum until we saw three bikes making their way up the main road (the one we bypassed with our back-road route). We knew they were coming for us because, once again, we were the only ones at the museum that day. Again, go figure.

Our next and last stop in Nyanza was for food. Our adventure made us all very hungry. The motorcycle taxis took us back to the main part of town. We found the first place that said restaurant and quickly decided that was where we should eat. It took a few minutes to figure out where the food was, but after some hand motions and broken English (by us, of course) we were pointed to the buffet. Okay, it’s time to let you in on the amazing local cuisine of Rwanda. First of all, most Rwandans only eat lunch – it’s the most important meal of the day here. I’ve eaten Rwandan lunch buffet-style many times in many different places and these things are almost always included: rice (duh.), beans, potatoes (in different varieties but usually chips, and by chips I mean fries), bananas, a mystery vegetable that resembles spinach, a mystery meat as well (if meat costs extra, I go vegetarian), and then this red sauce that you put over everything. Oh, and cabbage salad on the side that I always opt out of to avoid embarrassing bathroom moments later. Rwandans stack their plates so high – it’s honestly the art form they should be highlighting at the art museum. We decided to try our hands at food piling in honor of our day of embracing Rwandan history and cultural. (NOTE: Joash’s plate obviously won, but mine was a close second. Sam? She was hardly competing. I mean look at her pitiful little plate on the left.)

From there we made our way back to Butare, back to our home, back to our lives as locals in this foreign land. But before we boarded the mini-bus, I snapped one last photo. I’m happy to see that our President’s winning style and overall coolness are appreciated here in Rwanda. It’s moments like these that make me so proud to be an American. (NOTE: I’m being sarcastic.)

More tourist adventures to come. Can’t wait to share them!

Friday, August 7, 2009 | Family

The other night our friend Herbert took us to meet a group of genocide orphans who live together and support one another. They have become a family. The genocide happened in 1994, so the group ranges in age from 15 to 30. There are 94 of them who meet weekly. Several are students at the University. I met a young man named Paul. He is eighteen and is the only one left from his immediate family. He told me he is a singer and that he’s written a song about God being with him always. He said when he sings he finds hope. We talked as we walked back to town (in Rwanda it’s called giving you a “push” when someone walks you home after a visit). It was dark by this point in the walk so Paul couldn’t see the tears in my eyes as I thought about the supernatural hope that music provides. I was overwhelmed.

That night I also met a young man and a young woman from Belgium. They are Rwandese cousins adopted by different Belgium families. They were here with a whole group of other adopted children searching for their families. I found myself unable to form words or even complete thoughts as they began to talk about their experience and what it has meant to them to come back to Rwanda for the first time since they were adopted. The young woman, Hanne, told us she was adopted when she was nine. She vividly remembers life in Rwanda. Her transition was not an easy one and she still finds it hard to reconcile these two worlds. The young man, Ben, was five and said his experience was a positive one. They came here not knowing if they’d be able to find any family. They are leaving with aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. When they found out I was a songwriter they asked for my help writing a song to tell their story. Again I was overwhelmed.

Last night I met with Hanne and Ben and the rest of the group from Belgium. My eyes were opened to a whole other side of adoption, to what family really is, to what opportunity and change really mean for a young life. All of these particular adoptions happened before the genocide in 1994. Each story was different. One girl, her name is Nira, told me how she’d put off coming for so long even though her mom in Belgium kept encouraging her to make the trip. She told me about meeting her sister here in Rwanda for the first time. They have the same mouth and nose. And a cousin has the same toes. How incredible is that? To discover your family – the proof right there in the mirror. Like I said, each story was different. Some had a difficult life in Belgium, parents divorcing, rejection by other family members, being the only black child in an entire town. Or like my new friend Hanne, always knowing that a part of her was missing. I am grateful for her that so many of her questions have been answered, her memories have been confirmed and her family…multiplied.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009 | A Taste of the Craziness Here

A few days back I mentioned on Facebook and Twitter that Samantha and I attended a cultural event in the auditorium of the University. It was quite the experience. There was singing and dancing, ears of corn passed out during intermission and a female emcee who gave us our first taste of stand-up comedy in Rwanda. Sam and I cheered a little too loudly at one point and were quickly called up on stage. When I mentioned that I was a musician here in Rwanda to make music, I was handed the microphone and told to sing. I sang a verse from one of my songs about Rwanda and the crowd seemed pleased, so I tried to hand the microphone back. Not possible. The comedienne said she saw great potential in me and demanded another song. At this point things were completely out of my hands. I took a request from the audience. The next thing I knew we were all singing “This Little Light of Mine” while waving our hands in the air. I may or may not have started the hand thing. It’s all a blur. When the sing-a-long finished she let us go back to our seats. Unfortunately that is not where this story ends. The next day a man at the grocery store recognized me and commented on my singing. And then a few days later my friend Isah asked me, “Why didn’t you tell me you had a performance on campus?” Apparently he’d watched the hand waving fiasco on someone’s phone. The person didn’t even know Isah knew me. This is one time I am thankful for slow Internet in Rwanda. I’m hoping it keeps my embarrassment off of YouTube.

Here’s another funny story… The other night Sam and I met a friend for dinner at a hotel near our house. The hotel has outdoor seating in these little huts around the lawn. We ordered fish, mine a brochette and Joash and Sam were going to split a whole one. As per usual here in Rwanda, we waited an insane amount of time for the food to cook. I drank my Fanta as slowly as possible. Luckily the conversation more than made up for all the waiting. Eventually the waiter started running over to our hut with a bucket. I was thinking fire but everyone else seemed calm. When he got to the table I realized that he’d brought a pitcher of warm water and soap as well. It was for us to wash our hands. This was a first for me – tableside hand washing. After we were all clean, out came the fish. Now this was not my first experience with someone ordering a whole fish, but trust me when I say that this time I handled it much better…considering whole fish here look like some prehistoric aquatic creature had a run in with Fire Marshall Bill. As soon as the fish was served our table for three became a table for five. Two skinny gray cats started circling the table, rubbing against our legs and even hopping up onto Joash’s chair. I handled the burnt fish face like a champ compared to the freaking out I did every time the cats got near me. Samantha said they must sense my fear. I’m pretty sure the only thing their senses were honed in on was the fish. We literally had to eat every morsel before the two of them gave up and left us alone.

You see, for every incredibly moving, profound moment here in Rwanda, there is an equally moving but completely ridiculous moment. It’s the balance of the two that make life here so interesting.

Saturday, August 1, 2009 | A Look Back at the Week

Everyday is different here in Rwanda or at least that’s how it’s been so far. I don’t know if eventually there will be some kind of routine, but if this first month has been any indication of what’s to come then I won’t hold out for daily life to ever feel settled. In a good way…it’s an adventure!

This week included a wild mini-bus ride to Mutasomwa to spend the day with our friends at World Vision. I got to see Smiley again and discovered she has a brother. Also this week, we got a lesson in coffee beans from our friend and future housemate Scott who owns and operates a coffee washing station. Did you know coffee comes from cherries? The pit eventually becomes the coffee bean – after the washing and whatnot. If you put the bean in your mouth straight from the cherry it’s super sweet like honey. That particular day I also tried climbing an avocado tree. Then on another day there was a trip to Kigali. A refrigerator was purchased (now that’s a good shopping day).

With all the random everyday stuff it’s easy to forget about the greater things going on here in Rwanda. On the day filled with coffee cherries and avocado trees I was quickly reminded. We were on our way to a market out in the middle of nowhere, but our friend Scott needed to make a stop first. We drove forever without seeing anyone and then pulled up to a hill where there was this mass of people, some holding shovels. We got out and started having an English/Kinyarwanda lesson with some of the locals. One young man spoke pretty good English so we asked him what was going on. You see, there was a giant hole that had been dug and everyone was just standing around it. This is what we learned…

We were on the property of a family who Scott knew very well. He had a professor in the States whose parents used to live there. During the genocide in 1994, the parents were murdered along with hundreds of others on their property. Recently a man in prison for acts of genocide confessed to killing the parents and said he knew where they were buried. In the system set up after the genocide, if a prisoner confesses and can prove his story then his sentence is shortened. The community came out that day to dig up where the prisoner had directed to verify his story. The children, including Scott’s professor, had flown to Rwanda from all over the world for closure. Unfortunately, that day they didn’t find anything where the man said the grave was supposed to be. We spoke with one of the daughters. She was extremely frustrated. Her family had come for closure and they were no closer to that now with an empty hole in her family’s land where the toilet used to be. As she spoke to us tears rolled out from under her sunglasses before she’d wipe them from her cheek. She lives in Canada and works as a psychotherapist. She said someday she’d like to come back to Rwanda, she knows she could be of use in this place that still carries so much pain even as progress is being made. I fought back tears of my own and longed in my heart for her and her family to find closure somehow beyond this process, knowing firsthand that even in the best of circumstances closure doesn’t come easy when you lose someone you love. Today they will have a memorial service with all the relatives and friends. Fifteen years after tragedy, I hope they have a beautiful time together as a family and that their hearts will continue to heal.

On this journey here in Rwanda, it’s days like that one that remind me there is so much more going on here. But there is hope. I’ve seen it in the children, in the students at the University who long for a brighter future for themselves and their country. I can’t wait to hear more stories and to share those stories with you. Thank you for listening.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009 | Too Much Church Never Hurt Anyone…Right?

Church in Rwanda is quite an experience. I’ve been to services in the big city, Kigali, and I’ve been to church out in one of the villages, Mutasomwa, but this past Sunday I went to church for the first time in my new hometown, Huye. It was an English service, which doesn’t necessarily mean you understand everything that goes on – you’re just more likely to recognize the language. As usual, when a visitor in church here, you don’t get to just sit idly by in the service and observe. We were asked to stand and introduce ourselves. This was pretty easy compared to the services when I had to have a song prepared…more on one of those later. As we were singing I noticed that a little girl, probably seven or eight years old, had decided to sit next to me. We held hands and sang together and then she leaned against me as the sermon began. It was all very sweet. I started taking notes, which quickly turned into drawing time for the little girl. She drew a tree, a bunch of soccer balls and even a sketch of the two of us. She quickly noticed the jewelry I was wearing and started pulling off my rings and putting them onto her fingers, holding her hand out to look at them like she was playing dress-up in Grandma’s jewelry box. So cute…right? She put all the rings back onto my fingers except for one. When I reached for the one she still had on, she looked up at me with the cutest smile and said, “No.” Girl was jewelry shopping on Sunday morning and found something she liked very much. We spent the rest of the service negotiating between the ring and a friendship bracelet I was more than happy to part with. She’d count the number of items on my hands, then count the number on her hands, and then look at me like I should be okay with this because I was obviously coming out ahead in jewelry. When the service finally ended, a little over two hours after it started, she seemed happy enough with the bracelet and I walked away with all my rings.

Later that night Samantha and I went to another service on the university campus where a group of students meet to worship in English. Several of our past translators who have become our good friends attend, so we decided to join them. This was our second time to visit this particular service. Back in February, on a previous trip, I was asked at the end of the night to share a song I’d written. I should have known that just because I’d done this once did not mean that I would be off the hook this time. Sure enough, as the night was winding down a young man named Gilbert said that there would be a surprise song. He then proceeded to introduce me as a singer/songwriter from America and that now I could play one or two songs for them. Conveniently enough someone there had a guitar. As I tried to tune the guitar to something remotely close to standard tuning, I told them that in America when someone is going to surprise you with a song it means that they are going to sing for you, not you for them. Without missing a beat several of them shouted out, “This isn’t America. This is Rwanda.” True. I sang. They sang along. It turned out to be a lot of fun. Several students I met that night are interested in taking guitar lessons, and a few others are interested in playing together and writing songs. It was a good day for sure.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 | Life in Butare…I mean Huye

Apparently what we thought was Butare is now called Huye. Not sure why but we’ll go with it. Before I tell you a few things about life in Huye, I’ve got to fill you in on the bus ride that got us here from Kigali…

Samantha and I found the bus station by accident, just wandering around shopping for random things for our house. When we were finally ready to go home to Huye our luggage had tripled from one rolling carry-on to that plus two giant rice bags full of food and other necessities. We purchased an extra seat for our stuff on the 3:30 bus, about an hour wait. After getting kicked off the 3:00 bus (we knew it was the wrong bus, we just gave it a shot anyway…no luck), our bus finally arrived and we loaded our things and got two seats next to each other toward the front of the bus, or coaster really – seats like 20 or so with jump seats. It seemed like everyone with tickets had a seat with some room to spare, so we took off. The station attendant was still ripping tickets as the bus pulled away, so when he jumped off the door was left open and some guy tried to get in for a free ride. Did I mention that I was sitting next to the door? I practically pushed the guy onto the street and closed the door. We were only on the road about five minutes when we realized there was another stop…and here we thought there was room to spare. Not the case at all…by the time everyone got on at the next stop there were suitcases under every row and every seat was filled, some seats with a person and a child. The craziest part was how quickly everyone just settled in with each other, like it didn’t even matter if you knew the child. If he or she needed a seat, they’d just climb into the lap of the nearest person. That was the case with the little boy sitting behind us. This particular little boy must not have spent too much time in coasters because about twenty minutes into our ride he started throwing up all over the place. We spent the rest of the ride with our bags in our laps and our feet up on the seat in front of us, and the little boy spent the rest of the ride with a paper bag we gave him over his face. But that’s not all. The driver had the radio turned up full blast on some station with a man screaming at the top of his lungs. We couldn’t tell if he was giving the play by play of a soccer match, preaching a sermon or holding some sort of political rally. All we knew was that it was LOUD and occasionally everyone else on the bus would laugh or clap. We were clueless and totally annoyed. The ride is usually about two and a half hours, but before we reached our destination people started requesting special stops. They’d bang on the side of the coaster and the driver would pull over. We must have been stopping places where white people don’t often go because at each stop children would gather outside our window and stare at us or laugh or wave. Finally we made it to Butare, I mean Huye, and opted to walk all of our bags the extra block home instead of asking for our own special stop. Personally, I just wanted off of that coaster. It was an adventure that I’m okay waiting a while to experience again.

For the last three or so days we’ve been settling into life here in Huye. Today we will sign a contract to rent a three-bedroom house in Taba, a nice neighborhood just off the main road of town. We’ve been living in the guesthouse of a church parish, so being able to have an actual “home” will be nice. We’ve had a couple successful attempts at cooking for ourselves, pasta, rice…the basics. Andrew, the young man who manages the guesthouse, is very curious about all the things we make in the kitchen. He watches us closely and never approves when we add spices to anything. The past two mornings he’s made porridge for us. This morning it was just the kind we like so he was happy, but when we added cinnamon and vanilla he was disappointed. Andrew has promised us some soup tomorrow night. I hope it doesn’t need salt :)

More about our new home coming soon…

Friday, July 17, 2009 | Top 10 of the First 10 Days

I believe today is Day 13. The last couple of days have been spent getting things in order for life in Rwanda, but the first ten days were really an adventure of their own. I was with a group of 18 from New York City. Here are some highlights…

#10 First Class Upgrade – A miracle happened on our way to Rwanda. Sometime during our layover in London, my friend Samantha (who is planning on living in Rwanda for three years) and I were upgraded to First Class for our longest leg from London to Nairobi (8 ½ hours). Neither of us knew how it happened – and we still don’t. It was fantastic. They gave us champagne, outfits to sleep in, a three-course dinner complete with our own personal salt & pepper shakers and more and more and more. I took pictures of everything – probably making it pretty obvious that we weren’t supposed to be there.

#9 Working with Prisoners from the Genocide – The team’s main project was helping to build a house for two widows, genocide survivors. If you know about Rwanda, you know there was a genocide. Within roughly 100 days, somewhere around one million Rwandans were murdered, many by their neighbors and friends. The reasons for the killings are complex, but what I know now is that the aftermath of the genocide has come down to one thing…forgiveness. The prisoners we worked with have confessed and asked for forgiveness, and because of this their sentences have been shortened. They will carry out the rest of their time doing community service. On our last day at the worksite a couple of them told us their stories and answered our questions. Someone from the team asked which people group were most of the prisoners from, referring to the Hutu and Tutsi groups that existed when the genocide took place. Our friend Richard gave a very simple answer. He said they were all Rwandans, they don’t classify by any other name now.

#8 Building a Road with the Nyamagabe Community – It was Army Week here, so on one of our workdays we hoed and shoveled alongside the community on a new road. I don’t know if we did more harm than good but we sure had a lot of fun.

#7 Rosemary’s Bodega – On my first trip to Rwanda, in February of 2008, we worked on duplex for a young man named Claude and a woman named Rosemary. The next February when we visited them they both had ideas for businesses that they’d like to start. Rosemary wanted to have a stand at the local market as well as items available in her home for the surrounding community to buy. When we visited her this time she showed us what she had and spoke of her plan for the future. I hope good things are in store for Rosemary and her bodega.

#6 A Birthday to Remember – I turned 28 last Saturday. It also happened to be the night we’d already arranged for a performance by traditional Rwandan dancers. I had heard earlier that day that there would be a cake – one of the hotel staff blew the surprise by mentioning it in front of me. However, I had no idea it would be presented to me in front of everyone by one of the dancers. It read, “Happy Birth D. Ash.” Priceless.

#5 Seeing My Sponsored Kids Again – Each time I come to Rwanda I look forward to seeing Martin, Uwamubona and Consolee, the children my mom and I sponsor through World Vision. Once again, the experience didn’t let me down. I love these three little people and enjoy every second I get to spend with them. Now that we’ve met several times, I’m getting to know not only them but their parents as well. When I told the families that I’d be in Rwanda for a while and was hoping to learn Kinyarwanda, the native language, Martin’s mom immediately started quizzing me on the basics. I hope the next time I see them we’ll be able to communicate much better.

#4 Inside World Vision – World Vision has been a huge part of each visit I’ve made to Rwanda, from the sponsored kid parties to organizing other programs and events for us. This time we really got to see how each office (ADP – Area Development Project) works. When we visited Nyamagabe, the village where my three kids live, some of the workers were putting together packets to send to sponsors with updates on their children. One of the workers was actually a sponsored child himself, so he knows firsthand what being sponsored really means. He told us how badly he wishes to one day meet his sponsor. And in Mutasomwa, a neighboring village, we learned about the challenges they face, but once again we were inspired by how much they are able to do with only six or seven staff members and over 5,000 children in the sponsorship program.

#3 Reuniting with Smiley – Smiley stole my heart on my very first trip to Rwanda, and then she blew me away again last February when we did the twist together. I knew we’d probably get to see her because she lives near Seraphine, one of the women we visit every year. I could hardly wait all day knowing that a reunion with Smiley might happen. There was a group of children gathered outside the house during our visit. I scanned the crowd for Smiley and sure enough there she was – grinning ear to ear. I love this kid!

#2 High Fashion in Rwanda – The team spent our last two days in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda and a much larger city than Butare where we’d been working. One morning we learned about Keza, a high fashion jewelry line in America. Keza buys its products from a group of women here in Rwanda, former prostitutes who now own and operate their business, making beautiful necklaces with beads made from recycled paper. It was beyond inspiring to see how happy and fulfilled these women are. Exciting things are ahead for Keza,

#1 Finding Inspiration at Jemima’s – I came to Rwanda to write songs with and about the beautiful people of Rwanda. I had my first taste of inspiration after visiting Jemima, a woman whose house was built by a previous team. Jemima has a smile that is out of this world. Pictures don’t do her justice – she is gorgeous. After spending some time with her I found myself humming a new tune about the joy I see in her smile. I hope this song with be ready to share soon.

There will be much more to come as Samantha and I settle into life in Butare, so keep checking back here and for daily updates.

Urukundo (Love),

Tuesday, July 7, 2009 | Back in Rwanda

I just got off of a motorcycle taxi. It’s only about a two minute ride from the main strip in Butare to the Hotel Credo, but on the back of a bike it’s the best two minute ride ever!

I’ve been two full days now in Butare, the city I’ll be living in for the next six months. For the first week and a half here I will be part of a team working with World Vision and the mayor’s office to build a house in Nyamagabe, a village about 40 minutes outside of Butare where the three children my mom and I sponsor live. The highlight of today was going to the World Vision office to meet the staff and learn more about what sponsorship really means for the children. When we walked up, workers were organizing the yearly update packets, putting the pictures with the information. It was pretty cool to see the process in action, knowing that each of those photos is of a real child whose progress is so important to someone somewhere else in the world. We met the people who make it all happen, like Damascene who finds the children eligible for sponsorship in the village and Jonas who translates the letters between the children and their sponsors. One of the staff members in the office was a sponsored child himself, and now he works for World Vision in the sponsorship division. How cool is that?

This Saturday is the day we will spend with our sponsored children. It also just so happens to be my birthday. I cannot think of a better way to spend it!

More to come…

Saturday, July 4th, 2009 | The Journey Begins

Today I leave for Africa. I've said goodbye to New York City, and now look forward to six months in the beautiful country of Rwanda. It's amazing how quickly this adventure became a reality. And it's because of many of you that it's even possible at all. Thank you to everyone made donations for my living and recording expenses. There were guitars donated... Thank you Epiphone, Nadia Ali, Seth Cotter, and Mandy & Micah Roden. And thank you to D'Addario for donating strings for those guitars! Patrick Noth and Jess Purviance worked their magic on some beats. It has truly been a team effort. And because of that, I step into the unknown feeling supported completely and encouraged to pursue this dream without fear.

A very special thank you to everyone who came out last Monday for "A Night of Music for Rwanda". It was an unforgettable night for me. Thank you to my talented friends who shared their music and to the incredible people at The Nolita House who made it happen. Here are two videos from the show. "Those Hills" and "There Is" are both songs inspired by Rwanda...

Keep checking back here for more news from Rwanda! Love, Ashley

Dear Friends,

Hello! Something very exciting is happening that I cannot wait to share with you. As many of you know, in February of 2008, I visited Rwanda for the first time to build a house and to meet the children my mother and I sponsor through World Vision. While I knew the experience would be incredible, I could not have anticipated how deeply my life would be changed. As a songwriter, the story of this beautiful country began to make its way into my music. Then, this past February, I had the chance to return to Rwanda and was able to share the songs I'd written about my experiences there with my new friends as well as record footage for a music video. It was in these moments, seeing my two greatest passions, music and Rwanda, combine that it became clear to me that this journey had only just begun.

In July, just a few short months away, I plan to go back to Rwanda for six months.

During these six months, I'd like to use my skills as a songwriter and guitarist and my experience as a worship leader to give young people in Rwanda the chance to express themselves in a way they've never been able to before, through everything from teaching guitar to writing new music together. From children in the orphanages to students at the National University, these young lives are the future of this country I have grown to love so deeply. Their stories are full of hardship and sadness, but my goal is to make music with them that captures the potential they represent and the supernatural hope that exists, even in the midst of poverty, illness and the aftermath of genocide.

Due to the nature of this project, there is a great need for money donated directly to me for my living expenses during the six months, medications and travel insurance, and the cost of the musical instruments and materials I will take with me. If you would like to support this next chapter of my journey, by far the most significant for me personally, please make a donation using the donate button here:

Thank you so much for your love, your prayers and your support! I look forward to bringing back many stories to tell and songs to share!


P.S. Here are some videos and past blog entries from my two previous visits to Rwanda...

Thursday, August 14, 2008 :: Meeting Martin & Uwamubona
This is a video I put together about my trip to Rwanda back in February. It's all a part of a campaign to get more children sponsored in the same villages where my sponsored child are. UPDATE: Please visit this website for more information or to begin sponsoring a child.

Sunday, March 16, 2008 :: I Left My Heart in Rwanda
It’s been two weeks now since I returned from Rwanda. I figure it’s about time for a blog...

I knew before this trip even began that it would change my life, but I could not have planned for how this place and these people would steal my heart. In a country mainly associated in our world by genocide and AIDS, I witnessed so much love, so much hope and so much beauty. I was literally swept off my feet.

Love in Rwanda is overflowing. They are affectionate people. On our first full day in Nyamegabe, the village where we worked on a house and where my sponsored kids live, we visited a woman whose house was built last year by some of the members of our team. She wasn’t home when we got there but arrived shortly after. This was my first time to Rwanda. I had never met this woman before. But when she arrived at her home and recognized the people I was with as the people who put a roof over her head, she hugged me as if we were reunited family. It was amazing. Literally this woman hugged me for a solid minute (try hugging someone you’ve only just met that’s a long time) speaking words I couldn’t translate but understood completely.

Another incredible moment was at a hospital we visited. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past five years in hospitals. And even though I was in Africa, I certainly had an idea in my mind of what we would see when we got to the one there in Butare. Much of what we saw was exactly how I’d pictured, men and women with AIDS, children needing nutrition, but what I wasn’t expecting to see were the newborn babies. There in the maternity ward, wrapped in the most beautiful African fabrics, were these tiny little lives only hours old. One family passed their little one around so that I could take each of their photos with the newborn. There was so much hope in that room, in those new lives. This is the image in my mind now when I think about the future of this country.

The beauty of Rwanda was the thing that struck me the most but was also the most frustrating because it could not be fullycaptured on film. I’d stick my head out of the window of the car to take a photo of these breathtaking landscapes (each one in steep competition with the last to be named the most beautiful), but when I’d go back and look at them it just wasn’t the same. There was a depth that just could not be captured. But when I went back and looked at every picture of every child that I met along the way I realized that the beauty I was trying to capture in those hills was right there in those big brown eyes, in the smiles, in the laughter. And those pictures are the ones I still can’t get enough of now two weeks later.

This is Erica. I met her in an orphanage in Kigali. We bonded over a harmonica. We shouted, "Tugende" ("Let’s Go") together as I ran her around in circles. I would have carried her home that day if I could have. Her face is a constant in mind now, it’s even the wallpaper on my phone. Not because I could ever forget it, but because her face takes me immediately to those hills where I fell in love filled with such hope surrounded by so much beauty.

There are so many more stories to share from this experience. I’m sure I’ll be telling them for years to come. And there have already been two new songs written that were inspired by my time there in Rwanda, one about falling in love with this place and these people and the other about the love and hope that exists in a place so many only associate with the genocide. I hope to have recordings of these new songs soon because the story of Rwanda is one I cannot wait to share.

I want to say thank you to everyone who made this trip possible for me. Many family members and friends made donations on my behalf for travel expenses and to go toward the building costs of two homes. And many of you in New York came out to Harmony & Love, A Benefit Concert for Rwanda, to raise money for other expenses including two guitars that were donated to a vocational school for street kids. Check out the photos here on MySpace and on Flickr.

One thing I know for sure, I’ll be back in Rwanda someday. So more to come...

**Click here to read past blog posts
Donations made here will support Ashley's living expenses for six months in Rwanda, as well as the cost of musical instruments and other materials for the music project.

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Follow Ashley on Twitter! @iamashleyjones

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After meeting her sponsored children in Rwanda, Ashley joined World Vision as an independent artist in their Artist Associate Program.
Read more here. Sponsor a child here.
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