BRATTLEBORO -- Rwanda reminds Lauren Rose Herlocker of Vermont in many ways.
She says both have gorgeous landscapes with lush, green hills that can take one's breath away. Rwanda bills itself as "The Land of a Thousand Hills," though the country's natural features are tropical green not covered in pine forest like the Green Mountain State.
And the scenery is just one of the African nation's many aspects the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital nurse looks forward to seeing again when she travels back to the continent in October on a humanitarian mission.
Herlocker, who works to save lives in the emergency room at BMH, is traveling to Ghana for one month before heading back to Gisneyi, Rwanda, for another month. Last year she spent three weeks in Africa, conducting needs assessments and teaching Home Based Life Saving Skills courses at a maternity hospital in Goma, Congo, and providing health education and medical care in Gisenyi, Rwanda.
"It was an incredible experience, hence why I'm going back," the 31-year-old Long Island transplant says. "I'm just so excited to go back and see the faces of the children that I was working with and see how they've grown. I have all these pictures in my head of these faces and personalities and I get to go back and revisit them. It's almost like a homecoming."
Herlocker leaves from JFK airport on Tuesday, Oct. 9, and returns on Tuesday, Dec. 11.
This time, during her stint in Ghana,
"I'm just excited to see a whole different part of Africa -- I've never been to west Africa before -- and experience (Ghana's) culture," she says.
After a month, she will go to Gisenyi, where she hopes to follow up on the work she did last year. She will travel alone, though she will have a host family in Rwanda and a contact there will serve as a sort of guide and interpreter.
Herlocker says a friend of hers used a large grant from the University of Florida to build water filtration systems in a village of the Twa people, Rwanda's poorest ethnic group. She will work to further educate the people there about the filters and ensure they are used properly.
"I'm hoping to see the education we gave last year really sunk in," she says.
Herlocker marvels at the fortitude of the Rwandan people, who suffered through a national massacre less than 20 years ago.
The Rwandan Genocide, sparked when the airplane of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down in April 1994, involved the mass murder of an estimated 800,000 people. It was culmination of pent-up aggression and hatred between two of the country's ethnic groups, as the majority Hutus, who had been in power since the late 1950s, tried to wipe out the minority Tutsi.
It is believed that in the first 100 days after Habyarimana was killed, about 500,000 people were slaughtered.
Herlocker said the killings were orchestrated from the national government all the way down to neighbors murdering one another.
"This is a post-genocide country, where 100,000 died in a month. Anyone who was alive during that time was somehow affected -- either they saw someone killed or a family member of theirs was killed or they saw dead bodies in the road. No one was unaffected and yet there is a resilience there," she says. "People have risen and there's a real national pride. They really do want to make Rwanda a better place. They don't want it to be remembered solely for genocide.
"They don't talk about ethnicity anymore," she adds. "It's actually kind of a faux pas to ask someone if they're Hutu or Tutsi. ... They're Rwandans now. They're not Hutu, they're not Tutsi -- they're Rwandans."
She was fortunate enough to go last year with a group from the University of Florida that was looking for an extra nurse. Of course, traveling abroad always has its dangers -- which concerns Daniel Herlocker, Lauren's husband of two years. But as a fellow nurse at BMH, he understands his wife's desire to help people and supports her cause.
"I'm impressed with her drive. I'm proud of her," says Daniel, 37. "This is something that she has inside of her and needs to do. I have to allow her to live. ... She's a strong woman and a good traveler."
He says he will spend much of the two months his wife is gone continuing to renovate their house.
Lauren has altered her status at BMH in order to go to Africa and is no longer full-time. She says she will work per diem when she returns.
Her trip is entirely self-funded and when she gets there she will pay for all necessary immunizations and First-Aid bandages to treat locals. To raise money she has started a Facebook page called "Inshuti of Rwanda." Herlocker says "Inshuti" means "Friends."
She can also be contacted at email@example.com.
Herlocker says she can't wait to once again combine use the knowledge she obtained earning her bachelor's degree in nursing from Molloy College with her affinity for everything African.
"I feel everybody has a part of the world that they're drawn to. There's something about it that they want to read more about it, travel there. And I've always been really interested in Africa and I don't really have a specific reason why," she says. "But I've read a lot of books and I just have a passion about going to travel there and learning their peoples' culture and way of life. I think it's a really eye-opening experience."
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.