Letters from Africa: A lasting impression


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

From Zack: KIGALI, Rwanda -- Spending time at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda has been an enlightening and overwhelmingly unbelievable experience. My heart is connected to this place and that feeling will consume me until my days are through. I have learned more than I can describe and I have grown as an individual. I would like to leave you all with some final thoughts and impressions from East Africa.

Before departing, the group gathered under the mango tree in the center of the village. One of the leaders of the village who has been here since its inception shared with us that the worst thing in the world is to go through life as a taker. He commended us for being givers and asserted that the world could use more givers. When you really give of yourself it is so rewarding and people appreciate it deeply.

As we were nearing our time to leave, the people around the place got sad, but they sincerely thanked us from the bottom of their hearts. From the staff, to the kids, to the workers, to the administrators, they saw what we had built and they appreciated the time and effort that we invested in helping them. Seeing another person smile and get emotional and knowing that you are the cause of that response is quite possibly the greatest feeling in the world. Taking is easy; giving is difficult. Choose the hard path.

After the Holocaust, the world pledged “never again." This vow didn't just apply to the Jews, but somewhere, somehow, it wasn't understood. The world obviously hasn't fulfilled its pledge. Since the Holocaust, many other genocides have been planned and executed, including the terrible Tutsi genocide that happened right here in Rwanda, which is the reason why this group is even here in the first place.

Massacres are occurring right now as you're reading this, despite the lack of awareness and the fact that it hasn't been given the title of genocide (look up the situation in the Congo). Will humanity ever learn its lesson? What can we do to prevent this from happening?

The Tutsi genocide will never be forgotten and because of it, the county of Rwanda will constantly have to battle an image of danger and hostility. Perception is different from reality. One of the counselors in the village (when reading this, he will know who he is) sat me down and asked, “What will you do when you get back to America?” Concerned about the impression of Rwanda, he proceeded to implore me to share what I've seen in this country and to express the images to the people in America.

So here goes: Rwanda is a beautiful, recovering, developing, SAFE place! Rwanda is characterized by beautiful landscapes, friendly people, community and faith (not to mention an abundance of President Obama clothing). It is a country that foreigners shouldn't fear traveling to and visiting. We must learn from what happened here and no better way than to go and actually see it. The hope is that the country will one day be developed and thriving. ASYV promises to play a crucial role in the realization of that hope.

Lastly, I would like to talk about the people here and the village as a whole. Sitting in Newark International Airport on May 18, I expected to go to Rwanda and inspire the kids at ASYV to do better than they thought possible. I was gearing up all of my inspirational juices and planning ways to motivate. So much for expectations.

As I sit at the gate here in Kigali International Airport waiting to board a plane back to America, I am the one who has been inspired and it's all because of the kids at Agahozo-Shalom. I am beyond inspired. The youth here are unbelievable: They are intelligent, talented, loving, caring, energetic and they work excruciatingly hard with curiosity and without complaints. This isn't just one kid or even a small portion of kids; it's the majority.

They wake up at about 5:45 a.m. every day and are in school by 7:15. They are in class for about seven hours straight, operating on whatever small amount of bread and porridge they ate for breakfast. Lunch is at 2 and after lunch (which one of the girls at Table 7 sometimes skips to stay at school and learn some more), the kids are usually involved in some kind of activity -- be it EPs (enrichment programs like art, music, carpentry, etc.), clubs, sports, tikkun olam, or career skills. When they aren't participating in their activity, you can find them studying inquisitively.

The dining hall is packed at 8 for dinner and the meal is followed by family time and more studying (sometimes music and dancing). The youth then rest their heads on their pillows and dream about the opportunities that await them tomorrow. The morning alarm sounds and the process is repeated.

The youth here are filled with love and belief. They genuinely attack each day with energy and excitement and this is something we all should strive to do in our daily lives. Because of their approach and the example that they have set, I am energized and inspired to do more.

I am aware that these blog posts are being printed out and shared with everyone in the village, so I just want to say thanks to all of you.

You have inspired me and I don't think a day will pass from here on out that I will not think of you and my time in your home. Merakoze! (that's "thank you" in Kinyarwanda)

I would also like to personally thank Anne Heyman. Without her vision and courage, none of this would be possible. Special shout-out to Rachel and Ariela for planning this trip and treating us like family. Additionally, my sincere gratitude to the members of this group -- you are responsible for the success of the trip and I am grateful your efforts and camaraderie. Much love.

The concept of time has characterized a lot of our group conversations here. Walter Bond, the prominent motivational speaker, says that time is not something that you spend; it is something that must be invested as your most valuable asset. Our time here was undoubtedly a great investment and I feel beyond blessed to have had this opportunity. I would encourage each and every one of you to seek out similar opportunities to serve and to invest your time in a worthwhile cause.

As the saying/song/dance goes here on the basketball court in the Village, “Dunbugu, Dunbugu, Du, SESSA!” (That's it!)

From Dau: Although I am frustrated and disappointed I did not continue my journey on to South Sudan, I am also glad and blessed that I enjoyed every minute in Rwanda. Coach Dan Leibovitz challenged me to give the village youth my best and I did exactly that. They are a special brand of people who have created a memorable chapter in my life.

I want to thank Penn, Fox Leadership, Penn Hillel, and everyone who made the trip possible. I would like to specially thank Rabbi Mike Uram of Penn Hillel, Rachel, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Ariela, Anne Heyman (for having the guts to create this monument that will change Rwanda, Africa and the world), my fellow classmates on this trip, the village youth and staff, and everyone associated with the trip.

Another shout-out should go to Brett, Dana, Coach Leibovitz, Zack (Z-Ro), Lee Rosen (no offense) and everyone at ESPN.com for making the blog possible. I am very thankful for the opportunity and this space has provided a platform to share another side of the world people might not necessary be exposed to.

Also a special thank you as well to those helping me with the Dut Jok Youth Foundation, from the youth (Penn team of Zack King, Brandon Bell, Haywood Perry III, Triston Francis, Lucas Isakowitz and everyone else) to the NGOs to people like Bruce and Margie. I am just as confident today as I was when we started that the foundation will change many lives.

My body is currently fueled with gratitude and appreciation and I would like to thank God and ask him for world peace. We can all be soldiers of peace, love, respect, responsibility, accountability, change, passion, success, wisdom, and doing the “impossible."

Thanks to all for following along on our journey!

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” -- William James

Peace and Love,

Dau and Zack