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Friday, May 27, 2011
Letters from Africa: A test of faith

By Dau Jok and Zack Rosen, Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: In this space, Penn teammates Dau Jok and Zack Rosen will provide a series of blog updates on their trip to Africa and Dau's work to start up the Dut Jok Youth Foundation to help his native Sudan. For more on the tragic, yet inspiring reasons, behind Dau's mission, read Dana O'Neil's story here. Also make sure to check out previous entries in Dau and Zack's blog journal.

From Dau: AGAHOZO-SHALOM YOUTH VILLAGE, Rwanda -- Our service project is landscape work outside of the new canteen in the youth village. Every week the kids have the opportunity to buy items from the canteen, which they operate themselves. The youth receive an allowance of 1,000 Rwandan Franks each month and the canteen is their store, their one opportunity at business interaction.

The construction overseer gave us free reign over the design of the outside of the new canteen. We decided to build three tables in the front of the canteen and three benches in the back with a fire pit in the middle. The group was responsible for digging the holes (half-meter deep and 3 meters long) for the foundations of the tables and benches. With help from the construction workers (more on them in a bit), we finished the holes and turned up the soil around them so it became soft and manageable.

Africa Blog 1
The construction workers and Penn students worked side by side.
We then brought big stones by the truck-full to fill the holes to establish their foundations. Some of the group spent time working on the fire pit, some spent time mixing the cement, and others supplied the water in big jerry cans or lugged dry cement and sand in wheel barrows. Rabbi Mike and others spent time laying bricks to create a path around the village's center circle. All the while the construction workers took more control as the labor became more and more skilled, but for the most part we worked alongside the construction workers very well given the language barrier. They controlled the engineering aspect of the project as we continued to provide man power.

On the second day, we started laying the grass. Carrying each patch of grass was a challenge -- you'd be surprised at how heavy a block of transplanted grass can be. To date, the outside of the canteen is coming along well, but it is mostly due to the efforts of the construction workers. We are humbled to be just a little piece of the vision that founder Anne Heyman came up with for ASYV.

The construction workers arrive here every morning at 6:30 a.m. by foot or bike. Some live outside the village gate while others live two hills (at least an hour walk each way) from the village. Men and women, they all endure the heat until 3 p.m. without eating lunch. Almost all of them eat only one meal a day. The village actually pays them far above the average salary in Rwanda, an estimated $1.50 a day.

Some of the workers are old, some very young, some wounded, but they all have the drive to get the job done. In my estimation, the average weight of one of these workers is 150 pounds, yet their lean bodies are as tough as steel. Can you imagine showing up without complaint day after day, not worrying about the stain on your shirt or about how wrinkled it is? Or whether you got your favorite latte that day? There are so many excuses that these men and women might turn to in order to do less and complain more, but they handle their jobs with professionalism and profound pride. They are, to me, the definition of what it means to earn everything that you get in life.

Perhaps the proudest moment we felt as a group was when we were given the opportunity to teach the workers English. It was amazing watching people of all ages and genders help each other struggle through the challenges of learning English. We taught them the basic greetings and words like up, down, in, out, sing, dance and all of the colors. They were so eager for an opportunity to learn that it made me think of what the United States could be capable of if most young people had the same thirst for an education.

Africa Blog 2
The students became teachers when it came to teaching basic English to the locals.
The group has two more days to contribute as much as we can to the project. We hope our small efforts made some difference because, after all, it is small acts that make dreams come true. We will wake up early tomorrow morning and greet the ever enthusiastic workers at the site. The village has provided these people opportunities and they are taking advantage of them -- one brick at a time.

A special thank you to Bruce Koeppl, and a shout-out to the group on this service project and to Rabbi Mike -- an amazing group of people.

From Zack: The day before we left for our service, there was an article in the Newark Star-Ledger about Luol Deng, the ironman of the Chicago Bulls. The writer offered that the preeminent historian David McCullough likes to say that you can't know someone until you grasp specifically what they've experienced in life. You cannot fully understand an individual, a people, a family, a town, or a country until you know the precise events that governed their motives and the spirit of those involved.

This is what we have been trying to do here in Rwanda: Trying to understand what these people and this country have been through after experiencing the horror of war and genocide. While we will never ever truly understand and fully experience what happened here, today drew us one step closer.

Rabbi Mike shared with the group that he considers a holy experience to be something that peels back a layer of your skin and causes you to dig deep and examine. Today we visited the Nyamata Church. At this place of worship, 6,000 Tutsis were murdered in the genocide (some of the bodies were identified because their ID cards were still there, but most of the skulls and bones remain unidentified).

The place reveals reality, as the way it looks today is very similar to way it looked after the killing took place. It's all there. The outside of the Church is drenched with bullet holes. The clothes of the victims lie on the Church benches. The scene is exactly as it was some 17 years ago. In the back of the Church, mass graves contain the skulls and bones of those who were slaughtered. You can view them.

The experience of seeing this and looking straight into the eyes of the murdered caused an emotional response. As I walked up the steps from the graves, I simply broke down. I couldn't handle it. I couldn't believe what I had just seen. It's different when the remnants of human bodies are right there in front of you. My stomach knotted and my eyes shed tears.

When we returned to the village, I ran into one the young men here with whom I have grown close. Typically, we exchange greetings and ask each other how our day went. He asked me what my day was like and what I had done. When I informed him that I had been to Nyamata, he immediately questioned me. What did you learn? What did you see? Difficult as it was, I told him of my experience. After some brief conversation, he informed me that his grandparents were murdered at Nyamata. Any collection of skulls and bones that I had been staring at just hours ago could've been those of this boy's grandparents. Unreal.

On this day, my faith was challenged. My belief that people are good and that they have the intention of doing the right thing, my optimism, took a major hit. Seeing all of this was different, and for me, it made the genocide real. How could this happen? How could humanity initiate and execute such horror?

Rwandans believe in a better future and they have faith in people, even after all that they've been through. They continue pushing forward. They smile.

As Dau often reminds me after all that he has been through in his life, you just have to believe. You have to pray and you have to believe. You can't lose faith and you can't give up. Those are not options. Rather, you have to do the things on a daily basis that move humanity in the right direction. Change doesn't happen overnight, and to me, it is not a one-hit wonder. It is a process and it requires courage, will, and work.

Greatness is the accumulation of little actions done well, over and over and over again. You can only control what you can control and it is our responsibility as humans to do everything in our power, every single day, to effect change. Be a role model, set the example. At some point in our world, we must cause good to outweigh evil.

I was listening to Dau's iPod on the ride back to the village from Nyamata. One of the songs was about love. The artist posed the question: How would we treat each other if we knew that love had no color?

Thank you all!
Peace and Love from ASYV,
Dau and Zack