My year in Byumba

Opinion: Columns

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By Carrol Smith

My 18-year-old granddaughter met me at O'Hare. I had just made a 20-hour trip from a year of health-related work in Rwanda, East Africa and was coming home to Oak Park.

The environment here seemed strange after living at the Byumba School of Nursing and Midwifery. No dirt roads, no cows next door to me, no guards to open the gate. My house there was part of the school compound; I walked about 50 feet to my office in the administration building and a walk of 10 minutes took me to the district hospital.

Most of the faculty and staff lived within walking distance of the school and hospital as they could rarely afford cars. People in Byumba walked everywhere they needed to go — to church, to market, to school, to visit others. The roads were always filled with people walking. Living there was fairly simple.

My work in Rwanda was sponsored by a large grant from the Clinton Foundation. I was one of 70 nurses and doctors who flew from the U.S. to Rwanda in early August of 2012 to become the first wave of a seven-year project called Human Resources for Health, Rwanda. Our primary goal was to improve the five nursing and two medical schools in the country as a way to begin to improve overall health in Rwanda. I went to Byumba to advise the director of the nursing program and to provide education at the school and hospital.

Byumba is in the mountains in the north of Rwanda at a little over 7,000 feet above sea level. Rwanda sits partially on the equator but because of the high elevation, it is usually not hot. A most beautiful aspect of Byumba is the terracing on the mountains.

Rwandans primarily live by subsistence farming. They have learned terracing as a way to hold the soil. However, the terracing is an art form in itself. From the tops of the mountains to the valleys below are large terraced garden plots. They create beautiful patterns, depending on the direction in which the rows are planted and the types of crops planted. At times the plots are so vertical on the mountainsides that I did not see how the farmers stayed upright!

These were beautiful surroundings for my work there.

I spent the year working closely with the director of the school, Jerome Bushumbusho, holding classes for the faculty, and teaching students in the nursing school. I also went to the hospital to provide continuing education for the nursing staff. Sometimes the physicians would attend my classes as they had never had continuing education provided.

I am a changed person because of this experience. Though they do not have a lot of material possessions, the Rwandan people I met were lovely and giving. They taught me how to shake hands with everyone I met during the day as a sign of greeting and as a way to make physical contact. I felt completely safe there.

The U.S. now seems to me to be filled with too many cars and too much stuff. I know that is a common complaint of those who travel globally. It has caused me to re-think the way I'm setting up my home in Oak Park again. I plan to live much more simply, as I did in Byumba.

Now I just need to teach people here to shake hands with everyone they meet. And that means even the people you may not know or like very much. It is a gracious form of acknowledgement I learned in Rwanda.

My sojourn was made possible by the College of Nursing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, one of five U.S. nursing schools participating in Human Resources for Health, Rwanda.

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gerry gorman from Chicago  

Posted: October 11th, 2013 8:02 AM

Lovely testimony to the elusive goal of simplicity. It would be instructive to read a followup in a year detailing your success in resisting the American pressures to acquire, move faster and avoid meaningful contact. Thank you for sharing your experiences and wisdom.

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