Another 6-month update.

Wowzer, 6 months already. This 6th month has been quite a whirlwind, rivaling the first month we were here in terms of challenge and difficulty. The challenges are quite different obviously; I’ve started settling into my part-time jobs and we can confidently pay our bills. (Although the other day I was approached by a guy who said he was collecting the security payment for the neighborhood and said we owed three months’ worth of payments. He said we were never home when he came to collect the payment for Dec-Feb so I guess it’s all in the normal scheme of things to pay whenever is convenient, not necessarily when the payment is due? There’s always something new!)

We launched production at The Abari Collective and I now have seven employees working for me (!!). We flew in two amazingly talented jewelry trainers from Israel for the launch to teach our artisans in metalsmithing and I met my boss for the first time as well as Board members and other US-based staff. I’m learning that start-up culture is cool yet rough at the same time, in that I’m getting to help create so many new structures and ways of doing things yet I’m also expected to wear all of the hats, from HR to interim jewelry trainer to finance to communications, etc. Something I’ve learned from my experience in refugee case management is to create clear boundaries and prioritize self-care in my work. Working in a startup means endless to-do lists, an ever-growing list of job responsibilities, and constant shifting of expectations and doing it in Rwanda means constant delays, language barriers, and unclear systems—the recipe for stress, overwork, and job-related anxiety. Some days I feel like I’m singlehandedly trying to change the culture of startups by pushing for clear boundaries, saying “No” to my bosses, and prioritizing self-care; it’s striking to me that this is so hard for those of us who are passionate about the work we do and feel the effects of our decisions on our beneficiaries. It’s certainly providing ongoing lessons in adulting and work life that I know will keep me on my toes, always learning.

I’ve enjoyed trying my hand at website administration and social media at Abari (coming from the lady who refuses to buy a new phone ever—minerals from the Congo, people!—and was probably the last person in my generation to get a Facebook account, this seems a miracle even to me) and continue to expand my skillset by learning about payroll, company taxes, and being a manager. I also am learning a crazy amount about metal jewelry-making and I say things like “solder” and “sawing” and “Wear safety goggles!” on a daily basis.

Since the Israeli trainers have gone back home, one of the challenges is that I must come up with jewelry-related tasks for the artisans to complete each day until the next trainer can come. This is tough while I’m also juggling my other tasks, but I managed to pull together a neat lesson this week to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th. My inner artist came out and I encouraged the artisans to put ideas to paper and design pieces based on women who inspire them. They first wrote about a woman who inspires them and then brainstormed symbols to represent ideas like “strength” “helper” “caregiver” and “powerful”. The results were lovely:

My work at the health NGO, HDI, is plodding along. We recently had some pro bono, international consultants come to work on HDI’s 5-year strategic plan plus communications strategy and what emerged was the stark realization that the organization is poorly organized and incredibly inefficient. I’ve been on their payroll (granted, for a small “volunteer” stipend) since December yet spend most of my days with them desperately trying to get work, any work, from anyone and eventually give up and answer emails for my other job.

HDI does wicked cool work—mainly advocating for marginalized populations in Rwanda like female sex workers, men who have sex with men (MSM), the “community of potters” (otherwise known as the undervalued ethnic group called the Twa who have been discriminated against for ages and are known for making ceramic pots), changing policy to allow more safe and legal abortions, and implementing comprehensive sexuality programs for youth. I found out that while the national average of Rwandans living with HIV is 3%, a striking 51% of female sex workers are living with HIV in Rwanda. To address this, HDI has started doing some cool “Moonlight sessions” in which staff identify nighttime “hotspots” for female sex workers and bring nurses to offer free HIV counseling and testing. I’m also learning a ton about Rwanda’s abortion law, which is terribly more restrictive than the US and the cause of too many illegal and unsafe abortions. HDI is working on policy change surrounding abortion in Rwanda and writes position papers with key stakeholders to advise Parliament on making changes.

So the work is super cool but it’s been about finding ways to get involved. I’ve been continuing to develop HDI’s peer educator sexuality education curriculum but the implementation plan is disorganized and unclear. I’ve also been put in charge of writing HDI’s Quarterly Newsletters, which involves knowing about and reporting on all of the various activities HDI does that no one tells me about. I have high hopes that I’ll be able to get more involved in these projects and that the international consultants will make some good suggestions for how to better manage internal communications.

However, I’m bumping up against the issue of how to be a foreigner working in a developing country. I’m used to systems of order and structure, clear communication, and dedication to deadlines—all of which I think are “better”. Having order and structure and clear communication is a “better” way to run a business than what the locals are doing. Yet, I understand that I’m a guest in this country and that things have been running without my help long before I arrived. So it’s been an ongoing game of trying to assert myself and share my ideas while trying to listen and accept Rwandan work culture as it is.

For MindLeaps, there was a communication snafu and I worked hard to develop a sexuality curriculum for the wrong age group. The center has shifted its focus to meet the needs, not of street kids, but of at-risk, in-school youth who struggle with school fees and staying in school. The age range is 10-12 years old so eventually I’ll find the energy to make the necessary changes to the program to teach age-appropriate sex ed and launch the program in April. I applied for a personal grant from my old study board program (SIT) in order to implement the curriculum and pay myself a little stipend to facilitate and manage the monitoring & evaluation of the program—fingers crossed.

I think those are enough updates for now. Sending love to you all!

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Holly M Hendrickson
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Holly M Hendrickson

Great to hear the details! You are learning so much! Take care of yourself. Mom