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I never planned to travel to Africa. I’d been to Europe and Asia several times and traveled extensively in the U.S. and Canada, but Africa seemed too daunting.

That all changed after learning about an organization called Zoe Empowers that transforms the lives of orphans’ and vulnerable children in the poorest countries in the world. In 2016, I was offered the chance to see their work in Rwanda and knew I had to go.

Family and friends thought I had lost my mind. “Is it safe?” they asked. Others were even more blunt, asking, “Why on earth are you going there?” And if I’m being perfectly honest, I had plenty of doubts and concerns of my own.

But the tickets were purchased, the vacation days approved, and it was too late to change my mind, so off to Rwanda I went. Here’s what this trip taught me and how it changed my life.

I’m A Tougher Traveler Than I Thought

Just getting to Rwanda is challenging. I flew from Los Angeles to Newark, then to Amsterdam, then to Entebbe, Uganda, and then finally landed in Kigali, Rwanda. Over the course of four flights and 36 hours, I had arrived in one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world. This was clearly unlike any other trip I’d taken.

Over the next nine days, I learned that I was a tougher traveler than I thought. I would experience a hotel without hot water, intermittent electricity, elevators that stopped randomly, pit toilets, and long bus rides on dirt roads.

I would also witness men, women, and children living in a type of poverty I didn’t think was possible. It’s one thing to see this in a magazine or online, but quite another to interact with a family who lives on less money a year than I spend in a day.

Traveling in Rwanda never became easier -- and I continually wished for the creature comforts of home -- but I learned to cope by reminding myself that I had come to learn about orphans and vulnerable children’s lives being dramatically improved. I also took the opportunity to learn about this small East African nation, its complicated past, and what it’s doing to improve the lives of its citizens. This trip was a fact-finding mission and tremendous learning opportunity, not a vacation.

The writer on her trip to Rwanda.
Wendy Lee

My Assumptions Were Challenged

Each day we had the chance to meet the kids enrolled in the Zoe program and to hear their stories. Many had started successful businesses, sent younger siblings to school, and built new homes for their families. Their successes were inspiring.

And yet their lives looked very different than anything I was used to in the U.S. Homes are small and humble, most village streets unpaved, and indoor plumbing is rare. One of the greatest desires of Rwandans living in villages is to own a cow. Not a car, but a cow, because from this one animal comes both sustenance and income.

Is it possible for someone to be both happy and successful without all the comforts I expect at home? Obviously the answer is yes, but I struggled with my assumptions during this trip. I had to remind myself time and time again that most of the world lives on just a fraction of the income I do.

But the greater issue is how often I tend to assume that what we do at home is better or preferred. The radical differences between the U.S. and Rwanda taught me to acknowledge the differences between two cultures without ranking one over the other. This is a lesson I’ve tried to remember all over the world.

The author on her trip to Rwanda.
Wendy Lee

It Is Possible For A Country To Recover From Horrific Violence

The Rwandan genocide took place in 1984 and resulted in the deaths of at least 800,000 people. I won’t go into all the details and causes of this horrific event, but to learn more, I recommend reading Philip Gourevitch’s book We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.

This was an event that could have paralyzed the country for a long time, but instead, Rwandans have worked hard to reconcile and recover. The opportunity to see evidence of this recovery in person has been life changing.

Despite my initial concerns, I found my first trip to Rwanda to be so worthwhile that I returned this year. This three-year time span gave me the chance to see improved roads, an expanded tourism sector (which has been very helpful to the economy), and the implementation of improved building codes.

I’ve also witnessed the balance between not dwelling on the past with not forgetting it during both my visits to Rwanda. Understandably, most Rwandans do not want to talk about the genocide. Instead, they’d like to focus on the future. However, there is also the realization that forgetting can be dangerous. Museums and memorials to those murdered are plentiful and each year, a week of mourning is recognized. In this regard, Rwanda has much to teach the rest of the world.

The countryside of Rwanday.
Wendy Lee

Don’t Dismiss An Entire Continent

It was so easy for me to sit in the comfort of my Southern California home and assume a trip to Africa would be uncomfortable and inconvenient. But I was missing all that it had to offer.

When I returned to Rwanda this year, I also spent a week on safari in Uganda. Next year my husband, Jason, and I will visit Kenya. I now have a long list of places to visit in Africa. Being immersed in a culture significantly different from our own can be challenging, but also rewarding. I’m thankful for my first eye-opening visit to Rwanda almost four years ago and all it taught me.

Want to read about another woman’s experience in Africa? Here’s why Melissa Klurman went gorilla trekking in Uganda, and why she says it was worth the wait.

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