Down the road we hear a voice yelling, “Wendy, Wendy”. I turned to see a smiling wide-eyed face running towards us. Within moments I’m embraced by this stranger, hands grasping my upper arms, pulling me toward them, then gently tapping their left temple to my left temple once, then repeating this gesture to my right temple. I’m then gently pushed back to an upright position and a hand is extended in front of me. I shake it and say, “Hello”. My new friend, smiling, giggling and nearly out of breath, embraces Wendy and immediately jumps into a half dozen questions. “How are you?“ How is your family?” “How long will you stay?” Everything was happening so quickly and I stood there thinking, “Wow, I don’t know this person and that was perhaps one of the best greetings I’ve ever gotten.”
While I initially assumed this response was unique to this individual, I quickly found that nearly everyone welcomed me to Ruli with this exceptional level of warmth and friendship. And while I have no doubt that Rwandan culture harbors a certain degree of warmth and personal extension, I got the sense that I was privy to a bit more hospitality and a bit more interest than most would experience on their first trip to a rural village in Rwanda. I was reaping the benefit of relationships long established by The Ihangane Project (TIP) founder Wendy Leonard.
Had I been truly paying attention, my first hint would have been the weight of Wendy’s suitcases – particularly the one that was 70lbs and filled with photos. Initially I thought, why not medical supplies or clothes or gifts – not to say that we didn’t bring those too. But the photos had a tremendous significance. Over the month I spent there, Wendy carried photos from her previous trips to Ruli with her everywhere. And each time she saw a friend, or someone she worked with, or someone she simply met just once, if they were in a photo, she gave them a copy. The response was overwhelming. It was clearly a treasured gift and for some it was the only photo that they had of themselves. Further, it demonstrated the commitment and reliability of TIP in Ruli. It is such a simple and genuine gesture, and it so completely embodies the spirit of TIP.
Trips to Ruli, Rwanda by any participant of TIP, is a shared experience. And not just with those back home with whom we share Picasa or Snapfish links. These are not merely memories in which one reflects on how fortunate they are in their own circumstance. The relationships established during one’s time spent there are real and significant. The people you meet become your friends, extended family, and part of our own global community. The health disparities and extreme poverty are challenging but expected. I knew I would be stepping into a community with a lack of resources. I read and researched and prepared myself for this. What I didn’t know was the strength of the community and their dedication to the projects they have initiated for themselves through TIP. The Ihangane Project has become part of the community and each participant represents the commitment to not only the projects, but to the individual members of the Ruli community. ~ by Michella