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Spelke Travels Update #2 (February)

Getting a great mix of volunteering and travel...

The Contents Highlights:
1) Zanzibar – a week of beach activities and exploring historic Stone Town
2) Kigali Rwanda – getting there and finding a great home base for volunteering
3) Engineers Without Boarders – building a suspension bridge in a hillside village
4) Lake Kivu – a weekend chilling around Rwanda’s beautiful western lake
5) Bridges to Prosperity – starting a 220ft suspended bridge in very rural Rwanda

1) Last time I left you we were getting some well-needed beach time in Zanzibar. What a relaxing week that was… The two-hour ferryboat ride from Dar es Salaam drops you in historic Stone Town, the islands “capital” hub. Although Zanzibar is part of the United Republic of Tanzania, this wanna-be autonomist state has its own President and many Zanzibarians believe it should be a separate nation. A start would be to find it’s own energy source and not depend upon the 1950’s-built cable running under the sea from the mainland to power the island. There are constant blackouts and we experienced whole days without power but we didn’t mind at all kicking back on the island’s white sandy east coast. The constant and reliable easterly winds kept our 8-bedroom guesthouse cool throughout the day/night and made learning kite-surfing a breeze for Peter.

DSCF1643.jpg Although the bro wasn’t as smooth as many of the pro’s practicing long hang-time tricks, he quickly got the feel of the kite and managed to surf the turquoise mellow water on day 2 of his lessons. I on the other hand I had no problem sitting back with a book worshiping the sun. My favorites during our time on the tranquil east coast were moonlight bike riding on the beach, ‘jamin’ with the local Rasta-Man, “YaYa” around the beach fire, and scuba diving the coral reef (I didn’t just swim in circles- ok Mom ☺). DSCF1698.jpg
It was hard to leave our spot in the small coast town of Jambiani but we needed at least a day to see the sights of Stone Town before departing back to Dar. Wondering the narrow streets of Stone town was like being in a maze madeof stone & brick buildings. We finally found the cheese at the chaotic open-air market and got a history lesson at the old Slave Market. In the 1800’s, Stone Town was the largest port for slaves in the world, exchanging more than 120,000 per year. The heritage site now has two old slave chambers, a memorial statue, and a beautiful Anglican church built in 1874, just one year after the official end of slavery. We concluded the Zanzibar trip with a sunset boat ride to Prisoner’s Island, where we hung out with the world’s largest population of Aldabra Giant Tortoises.

2) The trek to Rwanda wasn’t too pleasant. We caught a 6:30am flight from Dar es Salaam to Tanzania’s second largest city, Mwanza then had to take a series of sardine can-packed buses and random rides to get to the centrally located capital of Rwanda. We were more than happy arriving in Kigali after 18 hours of travel time. Kigali is by far the cleanest city we experienced in East Africa with very impressive public infrastructure for a developing country. This is thanks to the strong Rwandan government and how well this country has rebuilt both socially and physically after the horrific genocide of 1994. If fact, Pete and I felt more safe traveling all over this friendly city then most cities elsewhere in the world including the US. It also helped having Pete’s friend from engineering school post us up at her place in one of the nicer parts of Kigali.

IMG_0509.jpg We met the large ex-Pat crew here ranging from British working for growing NGO’s to Americans working for large and powerful private companies. This modern age city was a great home base to stock up on supplies before going out into the rural communities where we were volunteering because stores had much of the essentials for American boys to survive in remote villages (i.e. PBJ ingredients, instant coffee).

3) Our first volunteer experience in Rwanda was with Engineers without Borders (EWB) who where well into constructing a suspension bridge when we came on board. This opportunity came in preparation for the Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) site that was just getting off the ground and needed two weeks to become volunteer ready so they happily lent Pete and I’s manpower to aide a fellow NGO working on the same mission. It was an interesting project to be involved with because a group of German Engineering students designed the suspension bridge from scratch and were also responsible for the fundraising, logistics and project management. They used the Colorado-based Engineers without Borders non-profit status to raise funds for the project and connect with local institutions and supporting organizations like the Kigali Institute of Science & Technology (KIST) and B2P. Each week a new group of senior engineering students from KIST would trade free labor for design and construction management mentorship.


Of course my brother ate it up and enginerded out with the German project managers and the students, sharing insight and war stories of construction. I on the other hand was more curious about the finances of the project, learning that a cement bag was worth more than a local laborer’s whole weeks wages. The other interesting part of the project was the 45-minute hike to and from our guesthouse to the jobsite that took us through the steep and busy hillside village of Kabaya. Each morning, as the sun was raising a group of 20-30 locals would wait patiently by the jobsite hopeful of being the dozen or so selected for work. The evening hike back up to the guesthouse would attract an entourage of kids wanting to walk along side the only “muzungus” (white people) in town or try and figure out how my prosthetic leg works.
A typical day of work demanded the usual digging, backfilling, moving materials, but we also helped with three large concrete pours to complete the tower foundations and the “deadman block”. This block’s reinforcement took days tying together and was quite the operation filling in one day with concrete that was mixed by hand, of course. The blocks main purpose is for anchoring the suspension cables back into the hillsides that is backfilled once it cures. We had a good time helping with all the thought and manpower needed to run a concrete mixer system for the day’s pour.


4) After two solid weeks of work we said farewell to the hard-working Germans and treated ourselves to a fun and relaxing weekend at Rwanda’s picturesque mountain lake. Some good muzungu friends from Kigali invited us to join them at a company house located on a secluded cove of Lake Kivu. We took advantage of a five-star resort a few minutes walk away with sunbathing, swimming, and great food.


On the last day of our relaxing 3-day weekend, we took a sunset boat ride out to an uninhabited island that is home to thousands of fruit bats.
IMG_0772.jpg The whole area was gorgeous with lush hills falling into clear green deep water. Lake Kivu is also very unique because it has more dissolved methane gas in it’s depths than any other lake in the world, enough to provide half of Rwanda’s 11 million residents with electricity for the next 50 years and giving rise to the largest commercial methane extraction project in history. This little factoid has a negative: the amount of methane and CO2 gas trapped at the bottom of the Lake from the water pressure has the potential for a catastrophic limnic eruption. This event has not yet happen in the Lake’s recorded history but if it did it would violently push these gasses up through the lake, causing a title wave and dissipating lighter surface air which would suffocate everyone in the area…luckily this didn’t happen when we were there but it has happened at other rift lakes much like it.

5) The Project Manager for Bridges to Prosperity (Andrew) picked us up from Lake Kivu and took us to our new bridge site where we spent our secluded next two weeks. After 5hrs (that included 3hrs of grueling 4WD road) we arrived at the mud brick guesthouse B2P had rented to store materials and adventurous volunteers. There was no electricity and the only running water came off a pipe that funnels stormwater a couple hundred yards away.
We shared the house with the mason and cook who made our daily lunch and dinners from a coal burning stove in a separate room—putting together some delicious rice/veggie concoctions. We were truly living the rural Rwandan lifestyle and loved it! The construction site was not far from the house but took a steep hike to get to. Soon a 67meter (~220ft) suspended bridge would span over the large Cyamangu River here.


The 15-20ft wide divider of the Southern and Western Districts of Rwanda had claimed 12 lives just the past wet season. It was an ideal site for B2P to implement their cost-effective solid design to bridge separated communities and increase safety of walking networks for this developing country. The first week consisted of harvesting local rock and sand from the river and transporting it up to the tower foundation holes. I even took a whack at breaking up the sedimentary rock into concrete-ready gravel pieces but decided after sludge-hammering sharp rock fragments into my skin to leave it to the local hires. Wondering how we could be more helpful by lending our creative minds, we discussed making the construction site more efficient. When the Project Manager mention the idea to design and build a zip-line that would save time transporting heavy cement bags and masonry stones safely across the river Pete and I jumped all over the idea! We began working on the survey and design right away. DSC_0242.jpg After trouble shooting and brainstorming over dinner, we came up with a design and a plan for the next week’s work. We spanned a 100meter (330 feet) 3/8” steel cable across the riverbed and anchored it to an existing tree on the downhill side and a foundation anchored 8-foot pole on the uphill.


On our last day we built and tested our design. The mason helped us piece together a ~90lbs rectangle box made of wood boards and rebar to take the load of at least 2 bags of cement. IMG_0988.jpg Peter bravely carried the finished “material carrying crate” down the steep hill to test it going across the river on the cable with a pulley. She worked! It needs some line adjustments but it made it steadily across the river without going to fast or stopping over the river; we also tied a rope to it in order to pull it back to the high side. The following day we said our goodbyes and hiked 2.5hrs to catch a bus at the main road. Andrew, who had to be a meeting in Kigali that day, met us and we cruised to Nyungwe National Park and experienced chimp trekking.
IMG_1019.jpg After 2hrs of hiking through steep jungle we tracked two male chimpanzees who where eating fruit at the top of a tree. The guides warn us not to get to close and we paid for it when we thought it was strange to feel rain with the sun out (a good laugh was had at our negligence). It was a good ending with our Project Manager Andrew who had shown us much of Rwanda that we would not have been able to see without his adventurous spirit (thanks big guy).

We now are currently in Uganda finishing out stint in East Africa. You’ll have to stay tune to the next update for some good stories and I promise it won’t be nearly as long as this update. Again, we welcome anyone who would like to join us on any leg of our trek around the globe and please feel free to reply with any advice on the following itinerary…

Hope the winter is treating everyone well. Miss home but couldn’t be happier.



Don't ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. — Harold Whitman

Posted by cspelke 07:06 Archived in Rwanda

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