It’s my birthday today. My dad called and asked, “Is there anything special you would want for your birthday?” I couldn’t think of anything. There is nothing I really want right now. I swear I’m still the same Chloe; I’m not some ultra hippie who went away to Africa for a year to live in a hut with no possessions. Yeah, I’ve changed since being here, but I still enjoy gifts and trips to Europe. I just don’t need anything right now. I told my dad, “Nah, it’s ok, I have everything I need…oh, well if you want to donate to Shooting Touch, that would actually be a perfect birthday gift for me.” We surpassed our health care sponsorship goal for this year of $4,000 earlier this week (incredible) and so I informed my dad of the next project on my mind. Lisanne and I are building a house for one of the women I coach in Nyamirama and I asked if he wanted to help fund the project. My dad didn’t even question my request. He texted back immediately: “Done.” He then told me how proud he is of me and the things I’ve been doing out here. The idea of giving my 24th birthday gift to someone else doesn’t surprise him. Whatever the amount he sends over to help with the project, this could very well be the best birthday gift I’ve ever received. This woman, Vestine, is extremely poor. She is among the poorest in Rwanda, so Shooting Touch can’t even pay for her health insurance. She gets it free from the government. She also received a free cow from the government that she takes care of and profits off of when it gives birth. She is still waiting for that to happen though. She has five adorable kids, three girls and two boys. Her eldest daughter has an infected leg that is twice the size of what it should be and she bandages it up with dirty rags to halt the secretion of liquid. Her second eldest suffers from seizures, thus always has split lips as well as cuts, bumps, and bruises all over her body from constantly falling on the ground. Her youngest three children have rounded bellies, suffering from malnutrition. She lives in a two-room home; one room for eating and sitting and another room for sleeping. Every night when the sun falls, her five children, her husband, and she fit into two twin-size beds in the one bedroom of their mud hut. I’ve brought both of her older kids to the hospital to seek help and have given endless mandazis (Rwandan doughnuts) to her younger three, but it just doesn’t seem like enough for this family. There are a lot of people struggling in this country so you might ask why this specific family stands out to me. I’ll tell you why; regardless of the struggle, Vestine participates in Shooting Touch practice every single day. Sometimes she is late, coming from the hospital or dealing with a crying child, but she finds serenity in the 94 feet of concrete we have out in the east. I’m getting emotional writing this. I wish I could give her everything in the world. I think my birthday present this year from my dad, extra funds from me and Lisanne, and some physical labor will be good for now though. I mentioned it to her the other day and she lit up. She also mentioned that the other 160 women at the court (Yeah! We have that many women in Nyamirama!) would kill her out of jealousy, but laughed as she said this knowing the other women would really be happy for her. Everyone in our Nyamirama Shooting Touch family knows of this woman’s situation and I’m sure they will even help with the building of the house, because that’s what they do here.
(Vestine’s home, exterior and interior)
So yeah, I’m not over here wearing a loincloth and burning all of my money to live in a tree house, but I’m living simplistically in Rwinkwavu while still possessing a not so simple life back in Boston. Now, I’m merely meshing the two. In my Boston life, I still have the option of receiving a birthday gift (which isn’t really a thing out here in the village), so now living over here, I’m just having my birthday gift passed into other hands. Re-gifting is okay right? C’mon, everyone does it these days.
I love the way I’m seeing the world today. I thought I understood what inequality was after seeing tough parts of Boston and reading articles online about South America and working with refugees in Europe, but I really had no idea what it was until I got here.
I got interviewed the other day from a man working to make a promotional video for Shooting Touch’s annual gala event in September. He asked, “If there was one thing you could tell people that can’t see the whole picture of what Shooting Touch does, but is just able to hear stories and see pictures, what would you tell them?” I calmly told him that for so little, we can do so much. That’s really it. We have the power to do so much. Without being here in Rwanda, it’s difficult to comprehend that just $1000 will build Vestine a home. That 20 minutes of crayons and paper will bring joy to little children for months. That a single pair of donated, used shoes will last a teenager two years. It is crazy the power we have.
With that being said, people have been coming together from all directions to help Shooting Touch this year. From grants and donations, this is what my organization has been able to accomplish in 2017:
-A previous Shooting Touch fellow and now friend of mine, Matt McGinley, initiated a health insurance campaign a year ago. He recognized that the people he loved and worked with were often sick, but most didn’t have health coverage. Without coverage they didn’t go to the hospital or buy medications, leading to severe consequences. Matt insured about 775 people. This year, following in Matt’s footsteps, Jake and I insured 1,889 individuals. We raised over $4,000, set up a mobilization campaign hosting 600+ people to raise awareness of the importance of health insurance, and for weeks and weeks we went around collecting information to fill out forms for health insurance cards. I’m so proud to say, out of the 12 sectors in the eastern province, the four sectors we supplied health insurance to via Shooting Touch are now the top four insured sectors in Eastern Rwanda. A side note, Nyamirama sector was in dead last place last year at this time for individuals with health insurance. They are now in second place. What an amazing feat.
(Bruno gets health insurance!)
-Shooting Touch holds the only youth basketball league across Rwanda. Our boss Lindsey back in Boston asked for at least 20 youth teams in our league this year. Jake and I gave her 45. This is greatly due to our efforts in increasing participation levels. In 2016, Shooting Touch had 114 boys and 52 girls in the program across five courts. Now, in 2017 we have 325 boys and 285 girls. In 2016 we had U16 and U18 age groups at our practices. This year we added a U13 group and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be working with the young ones. Having the opportunity to really influence young lives is one the best feelings ever.
(U13 practice, Nyamirama)
-Continuing with participation increase, Lisanne Comeau, previous fellow and current in-country program director, started the Shooting Touch women’s program in 2015 and it continued in 2016 with 38 women. Now, in 2017, Jake and I somehow manage to coach 227 women. They compete too! We have 14 women’s teams across three of our courts. At two of our courts the women are being taught English and at one court, the women are learning the local language in written form. At Nyamirama, our women have recognized the community they have amongst each other and are in the midst of starting a cooperative. Each woman pays 200 francs a week (24 cents) to a group bank account and they will put the total savings towards their new cooperative next month.
(Game day with the women, Nyamirama)
-For the first time ever, Shooting Touch is sending a player to Basketball Without Borders in South Africa. An annual event that gathers the best basketball players across the continent to compete in front of NBA scouts and players has welcomed Thierry, a 16-year old power house from one of Jake’s courts, to show off his talents this year. Our organization held a Gender Based Violence Awareness Tournament in January and invited local national team coaches to watch. Four of our kids, two boys and two girls, got selected to the U16 national teams and Thierry went on in 2017 to impress all of East Africa game after game. Thierry had obvious skills when we met him, but this wouldn’t have been possible without Jake’s added effort and love for the kid. For a month while Thierry was home from boarding school, Jake did individual, morning workouts with him. He traveled to film Thierry’s games to create a highlight tape for him. He sent multiple emails to NBA Africa staff to make this happen and it finally has. Hats off to Jake and Shooting Touch, this is so cool.
-We completed three health units in 2017. There was one unit on malaria prevention and two units on adolescent reproductive health. All of our kids over the age of 14 and all of our women are pre tested on curriculum information, taught curriculum information, and post tested on curriculum information. From pre to post test scores, our malaria unit scores across five courts increased by 20% and our adolescent reproductive health unit increased by 83%! We are testing next week and will know results for our second unit on adolescent reproductive health but regardless, these kids are learning like crazy!
(Health lesson before sunset, Nyamirama)
-Nyamirama youth have started three clubs that take place on the weekends. I guess five days a week together isn’t enough for this community. We have an anti-HIV club, a debate club, and a talents club. The captain of the talents club asked me to stop practice the other day and give his club members 10 minutes of court time. They put on a skit of what they considered to be a “bad family” with a drunk father and non-supportive mother when it comes to basketball and education and a “good family” with two supportive parents who greeted their kids with hugs and ‘wowed’ when their daughter told them that she had won her basketball game that day. The skit ended with authorities confronting the bad parents and the good parents taking the disregarded kids to practice with their own kids. Kids howled and cheered at the end. This is the kind of performance we encourage and this is what we want our kids to want their households to look like when they are older. The comedy club put on this skit to recruit more kids. Club sizes are growing. The anti-HIV club already holds 117 members.
-In March, Shooting Touch held an International Women’s Day Tournament that consisted of tons of basketball, relay races, a mini carnival put on by board member Alex Gallagher and his students and staff from Nobles Academy, as well as speeches from local community leaders, local hospital workers, board member and WNBA player Chiney Ogwumike, board member and ESPN author and commentator Jackie MacMullen, board member and President of the TD Garden Amy Latimer, and our very own Co-Founder and boss Lindsey Kittredge. We entertained and educated over 1,000 people and we also tested over 400 people for non-communicable diseases that day. Those with unfortunate NCD testing results were later treated by our partnering health center.
(Kuberimana, Vestine’s youngest child, wearing his best clothes for tournament day.)
-Lisanne, Jake and I often participate in Umuganda (monthly community service to help recover from the 1994 genocide that took place here) and a few months ago, with help from the local library in my home village of Rwinkwavu, we were able to help build a bathroom and kitchen for a family that had lost loved ones in the Rwandan genocide.
(Umuganda was messy.)
-We hired five new coaches this year. That means Shooting Touch is providing five people that didn’t have a job a monthly salary now. Not only have these five coaches helped to vastly improve this program, but also they have found a real love for the work they do. “This is the best Shooting Touch has ever been.” “Lisanne has changed my life by giving me a chance with this job.” “I love working with you and these kids and want to become a head coach some day.” “I never want to stop working with you.” These are just some of the things I hear our coaches say.
-Shooting Touch put up lights at two of our five courts this year, allowing kids to focus on school work during the day and basketball in the late afternoon and into the evening. Playing later in the day also insures a safer playing environment as the mid-day sun can be tough on both the players and the coaches. The first night we turned on those lights the kids went crazy. Most of them don’t even have electricity at their home. It’s the new hang out spot after sunset and it’s comforting knowing these kids are playing around the court rather than getting into trouble elsewhere.
(Women get to play for two hours during the day. Kids come at night when the lights come on.)
On a last note, a more personal note, I’m sponsoring a kid to go to school here. His name is Muhoza Patrick and he’s one of the nicest, sweetest kids I know. At the beginning of my work in Rwanda, he would stick around the court in Nyamirama all day, helping me with whatever I needed help with. I asked him one day why he never left this place. He had an obvious love for basketball but he spent way more time at the court than anyone else. “Do you go to school?” It seemed silly to ask because he spoke fairly good English and seemed well put together, but he lowered his head and said no. I asked why. He said money. Muhoza’s family had been paying for him to go to school but times got hard and they couldn’t continue to send him. Muhoza now attends school every day and then returns to the court as our new junior coach at Nyamirama. Muhoza has a brighter smile on his face than ever before. Lisanne sponsors two kids, Dio and Solange, at that same school. Jake is planning on sponsoring Gideon, a young boy from his court in Kayonza, when the time comes to send him off. I work with amazing people for an amazing organization. With just over a month left of my time here as a fellow in Rwanda, it feels great to look back on all that we’ve accomplished together and seems necessary to share with all of you. Thanks for letting me show off my program a bit.
With a whole lot of pride and fatigue,