Kigali, Rwanda -- After months of planning and fund raising, followed by 36 hours of travel across seven time zones via five cities and three continents, there's a problem: the soccer balls.
At customs, an official has waved us through after surveying our passports and asking perfunctorily what we were doing here in remote East Africa. We have collected our luggage -- all of which had arrived despite multiple connections -- shoved our bags through an X-ray machine, and followed teenage porters clad in bright yellow shirts toward the glass door leading to the airport's small parking lot and, we hoped, a waiting van.
Before we get to the door, however, airport officials usher us out of line into a room formed by partitions. The X-ray has revealed something that bears further scrutiny: Seven of our 13 checked bags contain more than 300 pounds of clothing and athletic equipment, mostly soccer and rugby balls and basketballs. The airport officials apparently are worried that we plan to sell them on the streets of Kigali, Rwanda's capital.
Though the officials don't know it, the equipment has been donated and is intended for kids who have been affected by HIV/AIDS. The seven of us -- three Upper Valley high school students, a Thetford Academy teacher, one parent, one chaperone and a Valley News reporter -- have come to Rwanda to get a close-up look at Project Independence, a program that offers job training for Rwandan young people orphaned by AIDS.
It's the first time any of the three Upper Valley students have been to Africa, or overseas at all, though they studied Rwanda before their trip. As it turns out, they will experience not only a physical journey measured in thousands of miles, but also an inner one that will compel them to grapple with their fundamental perception of themselves and their society.
"You think about life more, and the way I see it is different now," Thetford Academy student Lizzy King says after returning home. Seeing the conditions in which many Rwandans live, "You realize you can't really complain about what you have. You realize your life is so much better than you thought it was before."
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