On a mission for peace

BELLEVILLE –

As a Stockton College undergrad, Carrie Borkowski studied hospitality and tourism management but now she’s getting a reality-based lesson, this time from the perspective of a traveler in a land 7,000 miles from home.

Borkowski, a 2008 Belleville High honors program alum, is more than half-way through a 27-month deployment as a Peace Corps volunteer in the African nation of Rwanda.

She took some time off last week to attend her best friend’s wedding and visit her old school and share her experience with ninth- and 10th-graders.

An admitted adventurer, Borkowski previously put in time as a Disney World worker in Florida and as an environmental educator with AmeriCorps in Tennessee.

“I want to know more about what’s happening outside Belleville,” she said.

So it seemed only natural to apply to the Peace Corps and, after being accepted, she left it up to the Corps to choose where she’d go and what she’d be doing.

Informed that her destination was Rwanda, Borkowski confessed she immediately enlisted the aid of Google for background.

Some random Rwandan facts:

With nearly 12 million residents, it is the third most densely populated African nation.

The native language is Kinyarwanda. English and French are also spoken.

The country is located two degrees south of the equator but is not overly hot. There are periods of heavy rainfalls.

Parliament is its governing body and 60% of its members are women.

It is the fifth highest contributor of troops to United Nations’ peacekeeping missions in the region.

One U.S. dollar can buy eight avocados.

Borkowski is with a group of 45 Peace Corps volunteers assigned to a village in the country’s northwest, which she describes as “the Land of 1,000 Hills.”

As she elaborates in a web post, the site is “very close to the Virunga Mountains and not far from Volcanoes National Park which is where people from all over the world come to visit the mountain gorillas. The beauty of this country continues to amaze me.”

Describing the hour’s ride from the nearest regional town of Musanze, Borkowski recounts, “knowing that I’m close to my village because the view from my moto ride is a tunnel view landscape of a winding river valley and folding mountainsides of banana tree plantations leading up to bold volcano peaks protruding through the clouds. Can’t beat it.”

Given this type of terrain and the difficulty of travel between isolated villages, some of the children who attend her school “walk two to two-and-a-half hours to get there,” she said.

Having gone through 12 weeks of in-country training in the native language and culture and living with Rwandan host families, “they’ve taken the training wheels off,” Borkowski said.

And, since then, she and her compatriots have been adapting to their environment and their mission of empowerment.

Rwandans are continuing to heal from the 1994 genocide attacks based on ethnicity (Tutsis vs. Hutus) but many are still distrustful. Still, the locals have shown nothing but friendship toward her group. “I feel safe here,” she said.

Borkowski said her primary responsibility as a P.C. education volunteer is to teach English to students on a secondary level – Rwanda adopted English as the medium of instruction in 2009 – along with after-school English clubs for students and teachers.

She and another volunteer offer “financial planning lessons” to a women’s cooperative living with HIV to improve their quality of life and she’s in motion around hosting training to create “small climate-smart gardens so that more students at my school are able to eat lunch.”

Seems that students in Rwandan public schools “have to pay for materials and lunch.”

During her off-time, Borkowski attends church choir practice where “I do my best to follow along in Kinyarwanda because any music, even if you don’t know the words, is the perfect outlet for stress and the perfect inlet for light and love.”

Other options are limited. “When the sun goes down, there’s not much to do,” she said.

Electricity is limited in the region so there are days when she has to “boil water on a charcoal stove” if she wants her morning Joe.

There’s no running water source in her little abode but she says she can “fill up my jerrycans” from the next-door “community water house.” And water itself is “always available because it comes by mountain spring and we have plenty of mountains.”

Bathroom? “I have an outdoor toilet house/latrine and I bucket bathe in a small indoor washroom in my house with a hole that leads to the outside.”

Refuse “goes in a trash pit outside of my house.”

Rice, beans and fresh produce are the dietary order of the day, along with the occasional goat meat.

For fun activities, Borkowski has been a guest at a few community weddings and, during a side trip to Uganda, done white water rafting on the Nile.

“I talk to my family once a week using a whatsapp,” she said.

With the ninth- and 10th-graders, Borkowski demonstrated the appropriate Rwandan etiquette and body language for exchanging a greeting of “Muraho” (hello), displayed a sample of the local fabric called igitenge, along with native baskets known as agasseke made from aloe die and Rwandan currency (francs).

“I feel grateful to be there,” she said. “We are the seed planted for their success to be part of the international community.”

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.