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Rwanda visit a humbling experience

Whitehorse resident Simone Kitchen brought back more than photographs and souvenirs from her recent trip to Rwanda.

Whitehorse resident Simone Kitchen brought back more than photographs and souvenirs from her recent trip to Rwanda.

“I feel like I have a new set of values, in terms of being able to appreciate education and things we just take for granted here.”

Kitchen, 18, was one of eight Canadians selected as a youth ambassador for World Vision this year.

She travelled to Rwanda in August to learn about the organization’s projects there and participate in a conference that aimed to give local young people the tools they need to improve their own future.

For two weeks, Kitchen and her Canadian peers travelled around both rural and urban areas of the country in the dry-season heat.

Three times a day, they ate rice, potatoes, beans, and locally grown vegetables. It wasn’t spicy, but it wasn’t bland either. They often flavoured the meal with tomato sauce.

One of the most surprising things was just how many people there were everywhere. Rwanda has a population of over 11 million people, and an area less than half of that of Nova Scotia.

Farmers frequently burned grass on their land, and a smoky smell lingered in the air.

For the first week of the trip, the young Canadians travelled around the country visiting World Visions’ offices. The non-profit focuses its work on projects that are sustainable, like building a well or helping with education, Kitchen said.

She visited one school where World Vision had helped install a biogas system to create energy from manure.

Kitchen also visited a group of people living with HIV/AIDS. The welcome they received there was one of the highlights of the trip, she said.

“When we got there, they just like sang to us for like 20 minutes and we danced with them.”

The conference took place during the second week of the trip, and also included young leaders from Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Tanzania.

“I kind of thought it would be boring, kind of a drag, but it was actually ... really interesting and really fun.”

All of the youth participated in a one-and-a-half day child advocacy conference.

Then, each Canadian was assigned to help a delegation of youth make a plan to improve the lives of children in their own community.

Kitchen worked with a group of 10 young people from Nyamata in Rwanda.

They decided that they wanted to work with police to make it easier for children to report and get help for abuse and neglect. They also wanted to establish a support group for children experiencing similar problems.

At first, her group looked to Kitchen for the answers, seeing her as the expert, she said.

“They kept asking me, like ‘What should we do? What should we do?’ but I kept telling them like, ‘I don’t know about your country, like I don’t know what you guys need here. And this is my first time at this, too.

“So I think they got that eventually, that we’re just the same. But at the beginning it was kind of hard to make them realize that we are not the experts.”

The idea is for the Canadian youth to help the local leaders over the course of the next year with things like fundraising and promoting the project over social media, Kitchen said.

But even that won’t be without its challenges.

“It is really hard to communicate with them down there, because with my group there’s only two of them that actually have emails right now. So I’m just hoping that they’ll be able to get in touch with me.”

Kitchen was born and raised in Whitehorse. She has just graduated high school.

She became interested in development work after a school trip to the Dominican Republic.

She plans to spend the next year working and travelling, and said she would really like to go to Haiti.

Kitchen is interested in checking out an organization started there by another Yukoner, Morgan Wienberg.

One of the biggest differences that Kitchen noticed on her trip to Rwanda was just how many people were around. The country has one of the highest population densities in Africa.

“Everywhere you go, even when you’re driving out of the city in the middle of nowhere, there’s people there, farming and stuff. So that was kind of cool, because in Canada you can drive for hours and not see anybody.”

Another surprise for her was how little the 1994 genocide seemed to be a factor in the day-to-day lives of the Rwandans she met.

“I was really expecting the genocide to still be a big part of their lives there, but it wasn’t at all. It’s kind of in the past and they’re trying to move forward.”

The youth whom Kitchen worked with, although they live a very different lifestyle, were in many ways the same, she said.

“Their lives are very different than ours, but it was really interesting at the youth forum, like, you couldn’t tell that their lives were different. They were just like us, they acted just like us, it was like, they could be my best friends.”

She remembered visiting the home of one of her Rwandan friends, Danny-Mark. His home was a one-room house with the kitchen outside, a fireplace inside, and no bed. Every day Danny-Mark walks an hour and a half to get water.

Kitchen was impressed by how committed her new friends were to making life better for their communities.

“They were really amazing. Really motivated and kind and personable, and really hopeful for the future and willing to get out there and work.”

In fact, Kitchen learned a few lessons from her new friends that she hopes to bring home to Canada.

“It was really interesting to see. The youth down there, they work really hard to make their voice heard, they’re really trying to be the future for their country. So I think that’s important for me to try and do too, and empower other youth to want to do that too.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at