INTO RWANDA: Sacramento teen’s humanitarian trip to the African country

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BREAKING DOWN MISCONCEPTIONS — C.K. McClatchy High School senior Kendyl Ito experienced firsthand the Rwandan culture, a country once mired in a tragic civil war. photo by Jeremy Predko

BREAKING DOWN MISCONCEPTIONS — C.K. McClatchy High School senior Kendyl Ito experienced firsthand the Rwandan culture, a country once mired in a tragic civil war.photo by Jeremy Predko
BREAKING DOWN MISCONCEPTIONS — C.K. McClatchy High School senior Kendyl Ito experienced firsthand the Rwandan culture, a country once mired in a tragic civil war.
photo by Jeremy Predko

Imagine walking down the street among the hustle and bustle of your typical American neighborhood — its faint brown-blue skies in the horizon and the pungent, gasoline-infused atmosphere filling the air.

On the opposite side of the street, you spot a friendly-looking citizen walking toward you. You shoot out your arm in a gesture to say, “Hello there!”

Instead of getting the usual “what are you lookin’ at?” visual response normally observed in America, you receive the most genuine smile and wave of equal joy.

While this level of friendliness among strangers is not usually found in the streets of America, 17-year-old Kendyl Ito of Sacramento, Calif. said she met so many people with this sense of friendliness during her trip to Rwanda that the country’s history of war and genocide rarely crossed her mind.

“Even though (genocide) is part of their history, where they are now is so far beyond that,” Ito said.

For one month during this past summer, Ito, a senior at C.K. McClatchy High School, went on a trip to Rwanda in Africa with 17 other students and four adult leaders as a part of a trip between McClatchy High, Sacramento Country Day School, Pleasant Valley High School, Chico High School and the AfriPeace Development Foundation.

Ito said she would like Americans to “take away all the stereotypes and the assumptions they have about Africa” and to understand the people and the culture with a more open mind.

Ito said she learned about the trip while taking the African and Latin American studies class with Nate Starace, also a teacher guide for the trip, during her sophomore year. Starace promoted the trip through his class and, when enough students expressed interest in it, began preparations during fall of 2011.

Ito said that although she learned a lot about African culture through Starace’s class, she preferred to experience it firsthand, rather than read about it.

“You know, as much as you read in books and everything, knowledge wise you get a lot of it but if you’re actually there, you’re actually (immersed) into the culture, hands on and everything,” Ito said. “I think that’s where you get the most experience.”

But as excited and enthusiastic as Ito was about the trip, her parents, Larry and Karen Ito, said they were initially concerned about her safety based on what they knew about the history of genocide and public unrest within the country.

“You think about that unsafe situation and you think ‘Hmm, why does that interest Kendyl?’” Larry said.

However, Karen said that after a year’s worth of research, they had learned that their misconceptions about the country were incorrect. In addition, thanks to some conferences brought together by the board chair and CEO of AfriPeace and professor of criminal justice at the California State College of Sacramento, Dr. Ernest Uwazie, Ito’s parents and others were able to hear stories from parents of students who went on past trips, and thus felt better about their daughter participating.

“We get locked into a single story when it comes to an individual or a group of people or a country,” Starace said. “So, one of the big things that we try to push is this trip will show you that not everyone is this one dimensional character.”

The AfriPeace Development Foundation, according to its Website, is “a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Africa-U.S. relations through peace education and community development.” Jeremy Predko, one of the teacher guides that attended the trip to Rwanda with Ito, said the organizers chose Rwanda as the next destination because of the story it holds for the students.

“We decided that the idea that a whole country could (rise) up against each other and a million people could get killed and yet they could very peaceably, within a number of years, come up with a way to interact with each other, be humane to each other, and not continue the violence was amazing,” Predko said. “We thought that was a story that high school-aged kids could really sink their teeth into.”

In addition to meeting with Rwandan youth and public officials, a large part of their trip consisted of doing community service. According to Ito, they spent a week in Mayaga to build a workshop for a vocational school.

“There’s just this real sense of community over there,” Ito said. “Children from near the worksite would just come and just start helping us — they weren’t even associated with the school whatsoever, but they just came and just started helping…”

According to Predko, Ito stood out most among the other students because of how engaging she was with the locals. Predko said that when they had to wait for other work to be done, Ito would gather a group of kids together and start playing games.

“She really encouraged the other (students on the trip) to put their guard down and go and engage with people and realize that you can’t just stand back in your very American way and say, ‘This is my space and I’m just gonna sit here,’” Predko said.

However, as much as the group enjoyed meeting the people and learning about its thriving culture, they did witness a few uncomfortable incidents that Ito described as a “culture clash.”

While packing up after spending a day at Lake Kivu, Ito said that one of the students realized their camera had been stolen. Once the children who stole the camera had been caught, local guards proceeded to hit them as punishment, a scene that left many of the students emotional and in shock.

“As much as we hate seeing those aspects, I think it’s a little bit important to,” Ito said. “I mean it’s nice to see all the positive things of the country — like, oh, it’s very peaceful (and) very prosperous — but I think to fully understand the culture, you need to see the good and the bad.”

Through all the things Ito and the other students did during their trip — whether it be building the workshop or bringing gifts from America — the most valuable aspect Ito said she brought back with her is what she learned from the Rwandan people.

“After Kendyl came back, what I realized is there were things that she found of value within the culture there,” said Ito’s mother. “She will still say, ‘There is so much that we can still learn from them.’”

Ito said her journey does not stop here. She plans to major in international relations when she attends college, and ultimately hopes to visit West Africa and third-world countries to participate in other community service activities there.

“I feel like (people shouldn’t) be afraid or intimidated (to go to Rwanda),” Ito said.

“If you’re really interested in learning about the culture of Rwanda, I feel like, you should go. As much as you love to read about it and hear about it from stories, it’s not the same as actually being there directly in the culture.”

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