Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda -- Hand outstretched, the small boy chases our white Land Cruiser as it jolts along a dirt road deep in the Rwandan countryside. His thin legs churn to keep up until our car leaves him behind amid the red dust that swirls in our noisy wake.
Although he is especially persistent, he's just one of scores of children we'll encounter today near a trailhead in Volcanoes National Park in northwest Rwanda, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though it's still early morning, the air is warm and clear, a rarity so close to the rain forest.
It will be a day of contrasts between the beauty of the cloud-topped volcanoes and the poverty of the people who live in their shadows -- contrasts more sharply etched than anything we've encountered during the previous few days in Kigali, Rwanda's capital.
Three Upper Valley students have traveled to the East African country of Rwanda to make connections with students in Project Independence, which offers job skills training for Rwandan young people orphaned by AIDS. Lizzy King and Kylie Butler are juniors at Thetford Academy, while Rebecca Young-Ward is a junior at The Sharon Academy.
Their experiences of Rwanda, including the country's extreme poverty, are requiring the students to look more deeply at their own lives and society. All three students are active in Operation Day's Work-USA, a nationwide student organization that raised money to start Project Independence through a workday last spring. I'm a Valley News reporter sent to document the experiences of the students during the 10-day trip in December. Three other adults are also along on the journey, including trip leader Cindy Perry, a Thetford Academy teacher.
Amid visits with students in Project Independence, our group (with the exception of Kylie) has taken a two-day field trip to Volcanoes National Park to see the mountain gorillas that live on the slopes of the park's long-dormant volcanoes. This is where Dian Fossey, author of Gorillas in the Mist, spent years studying the gorillas before her still-unsolved murder in these mountains in 1985.
What we hadn't expected was to confront poverty of this magnitude. Little children in worn clothing and no shoes stare at us from outside thatched mud shanties. Older children stand inches from our vehicle as it bounces by, calling to us in Kinyarwanda with hands extended.
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