By SHANNON TAYLOR
OBSERVER Staff Writer
Rwanda was once a country of great strife, full of poverty and discrimination. That discrimination led to the deaths of about one million people in 100 days in 1994.
Above: Sally Dunst (second from left) with her coworker from Kigeme Hospital and his family. Below, left: Dunst and her dog, Makasi, at their favorite spot to visit in Rwanda.
Sally Dunst of Sheridan has recently returned from a two-year stay in Rwanda with the Peace Corps and has seen with her own eyes just how much the country has changed since those days.
"A lot of people when they think of Rwanda think about the genocide," Dunst said. "And when people think of Africa, they think of poverty and desolate land and desperation of people and a lack of hope. There certainly is poverty and serious issues but the people there are generally really happy, welcoming and friendly."
Before joining the Peace Corps and going to Rwanda, Dunst knew that she wanted to focus her career on global issues, specifically with public health and women's inequality. To begin the path to that career, she chose to go to Cornell University, which had a good sociology program.
While at Cornell University, Dunst participated in a peer education group that did outreach activities for HIV prevention and sexual health topics. The university also offered courses on African issues, women's issues and health issues. The knowledge gained from both courses and the group coupled with study abroad experiences in Uganda and Nicaragua served as gateways to Dunst's desire to join the Peace Corps and gave her the necessary experience to fulfill her role in Rwanda.
"Seeing the poverty through those experiences made me appreciate what I have and want to work to combat global inequality and poverty," Dunst said. "Because I have been to Nicaragua and Uganda, I sort of knew what to expect. It wasn't totally an unknown. I knew that was what I wanted to do, so I just had to dive in."
The Peace Corps expanded on the knowledge she had gained in her studies and added more HIV and AIDS training. A large portion of the funding for the Peace Corps comes from the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which requires the volunteers to focus much of their efforts on combating HIV and AIDS.
Dunst worked with the local hospital in Nyamagabe, Rwanda, a well-maintained mountainous town near the Rwandan rain forest. This town was on the main paved road. The surrounding roads were either dirt or cobblestone. The town had great infrastructures, including many small shops and an Internet cafe.
In this town she worked with the HIV staff who were providing HIV services in order to improve AIDS clinical data management, to train hospital staff to use computer programs and to introduce electronic recording to the staff.
Every day Dunst worked with the staff using Microsoft Excel to track patient data, complete monthly reports, keep track of patient information and keep up-to-date records.
"I did see things that were really sad and difficult to see," said Dunst of her time at work. "I would see kids who were severely malnourished but the hospital did a really good job taking care of people so there was some element of hope in all of that."
In addition to her primary assignment, Dunst had a secondary assignment to complete with her fellow Peace Corps volunteers. Together they put on boy and girl youth leadership camps that each lasted a week. During the camps, the volunteers trained secondary school students in reproductive health, leadership, peer education and professional development.
The curriculum for the camps was based off camps other Peace Corps volunteers do all over the world but customized for Rwanda. Around 50 boys and 50 girls participated. These large groups were divided into smaller classes of about 10 to 12 in order to allow for more engagement in the lessons and activities. The students responded well to the camps and were especially excited to be taught in English. In Rwanda, the local language is Kinyarwanda and the national language was only recently changed from French to English, so many teachers there do not yet have the best English skills.
Because Dunst lived in Rwanda for two years, she had the opportunity to really get to know her community members and neighbors.
"It was fun to be able to connect with people who are really different from me and see the commonalities of all people," Dunst said.
People in Rwanda take the time to greet and get to know each other.
"The whole concept of time is very different," Dunst said. "There's not so much of the rush as there is here, and people really just know their neighbors and take time to talk to people."
Many people there became her close friends and host families. For entertainment, friends would visit each other at their houses and have tea, which Dunst described as very sweet with milk in it.
At first conversation could be difficult and take time with Dunst and her friends.
"A lot of the time we didn't have a common language," said Dunst. "I knew a little French and Kinyarwanda, and they knew a little bit of English, so it took awhile at times to figure out how to communicate and get the conversation going."
Once the conversation was started, they were able to find many things in common.
"I think that was my favorite part of being in Rwanda," Dunst said, "when you can transcend those cultural and language barriers and really connect with someone just laughing at something or talking about how you both don't like cassava."
Dunst often met new people at the market place. The town where she lived was large and brought people from surrounding communities on Wednesdays and Saturdays to sell and buy fruits, vegetables, agricultural products, clothing and other goods. The people there were welcoming and interested in her, so she would often try to speak Kinyarwanda with them and connect with them.
Another favorite spot for Dunst other than the market place was the hill behind her house. She would often walk there with her dog. From this spot, she had a beautiful view of the mountains stretching out in every direction toward the horizon filled with lush green plants and trees. At times soft mist would rest on the hills leaving only the peaks visible. Dunst would often wake up early just to see the golden glow in the sky as the sun rose over these misty mountains.
Dunst lived alone in a simple house with cement walls, cement floors and a tin roof. She considers herself lucky because she was one of the few to have running water, electricity and a bathroom inside her house.
About an hour from her house was the national forest, a preserve where many monkeys live. Other national parks in Rwanda that Dunst got the chance to visit during her time there was the Volcano National Park where she saw gorillas roaming around freely without the restrictions of a zoo cage. She also went to Akagera National Park with her parents when they visited her. This park offered the traditional safari setting with giraffes and elephants.
The experiences Dunst had in Rwanda shaped her as a person.
"I definitely grew a lot personally," Dunst said. "It made me better at living on my own. It also taught me a lot about the world. It was great to get to know a place that was so different, or that we think of as so different, on such a close level, to take a foreign place and really come to understand and appreciate it."
From these experiences, Dunst has become even further grounded in her pursuit of a career. In the fall of this year, she will begin her graduate studies at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health where she will study in the population, family and reproductive health department. She is currently interested in working on family planning programs at an international level by working with an organization that helps expand access to contraceptives in developing countries.
From working at the hospital and living in Rwanda, Dunst feels she has gained an understanding of the issues at a grassroots level, giving her a more realistic view of how things work in developing countries and a better understanding of their needs. She also improved upon cross-cultural communication, which includes not only language but also an understanding of another culture's values. By having this knowledge and deeper understanding, Dunst believes she will be able to help create more effective and less wasteful programs.
Joining the Peace Corps and going to Rwanda offered Dunst the chance to see the true need for what she intended to do as a career. She also got the opportunity to meet many new people, connect with them and come to understand their culture. Dunst enjoyed her time in Rwanda and hopes to return to visit some day.
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