Notes from Rwanda: Part One

As I write this post, I am sitting at a small restaurant in Gisenyi, a town on the Northwest border of Rwanda. When the clouds scatter, I can see the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the locals warned us not to venture near its border, as the country continues to be plagued with civil war. Rwanda, though, feels very safe.

Gisenyi.8
Gisenyi.8

This April marks twenty years since the genocide that claimed the lives of over a million people in just 100 days, the far majority being Tutsis. Unlike what the world saw in Germany during WWII, the Génocidaires (the French word for “those who commit genocide”) of Rwanda did not have gas chambers or even automatic weapons, most of them carried only machetes and clubs, making it unimaginably savage. Women and children were especially targeted because they represented the future, and sadly, the Hutus intended to wipe out any possibility of a Tutsi future. During those one hundred days, Western nations either evacuated all ex-patriots and peacekeepers, or chose to ignore it all together. I understand it was a complicated time in the United States, as the Clinton Administration had just suffered a blowing defeat in Somalia, and it would have been hard-pressed to get the American people behind another African intervention. Still, it is hard to see footage and visit memorial sites and accept that we as a nation did nothing. I once read a quote from a Rwandan saying, “Western people do not want to believe what they cannot possibly imagine to be true,” and perhaps this was true.

I am very careful to say anymore, as Rwanda has come so far since April of 1994, and most Rwandans speak little of the genocide, so I will do the same.

It is inspiring to see how much Rwanda has grown in the past two decades. Driving through Kigali, the capital city, you are impressed with its cleanliness, especially when you are used to other capital cities in the developing world. There are landscaped sidewalks and streetlights, and there is no liter on the streets, as Rwandans are proud of their city. In 2007, the government banned plastic bags, becoming the first country in the world to do so. The last Saturday of every month, the entire country participates in umuganda, a countrywide four-hour period of community service, in which all citizens serve their own communities. The up-and-coming restaurant scene in Kigali is greatly appreciated after a long day’s work. I have had one of the best meals of my life at Heaven, an appropriately named open-air restaurant that overlooks the city and its endless hills. As you begin your drive outside the city, however, you find a different story.

Heaven Restaurant's owner designed the entire seating area around this tree in order to save it.
Heaven Restaurant’s owner designed the entire seating area around this tree in order to save it.

The paved streets of Kigali turn to bumpy dirt roads, and the nice hotels and apartment buildings turn to mud homes lined with jerry cans used for fetching water. Rural life is very difficult in Rwanda, as it usually is in developing countries. On most days, you will find women and men working their small farms. It is backbreaking work that barely produces enough to feed their families, much less generate an income adequate enough to cover daily life, school fees, medical care, etc. Many farmers are using planting methods that are generations old with very poor seed, so it is no wonder their harvests are far less than plentiful.

2013-10-04 Kigali 0089
2013-10-04 Kigali 0089
2013-10-04 Kigali 0033
2013-10-04 Kigali 0033

Almost 90% of the Rwandan population is engaged in small-scale agriculture. Can you imagine what this country would look like if these farmers had good seed, fertilizer, access to fair-trade markets, proper food storage, and the latest farming technologies? Rwanda is a country of extraordinary potential, and we want to come alongside Rwandans to further achieve it.

James and I are in Rwanda to launch Kula Project’s next program. With the support of our donors, over the next three years, we are adding coffee trees and companion food crops to 150 small farms. Now, we are not experts in growing coffee in Rwanda, so we are hiring local agronomists to teach farmers how to cultivate their land, prevent disease, and encourage optimal growth for every single coffee tree.

We not only have the opportunity to employ a local, but we can also help farmers learn in their native language. As many people know, coffee is a highly exploited crop, and many farmers are paid little to none for it, which is especially tragic considering it takes three years for a coffee tree to produce. To avoid such exploitation, we have partnered with Land of 1000 Hills Coffee Company (LOTH), and they committed to buy the farmer’s coffee at fair trade value. Many companies pay around forty cents a pound, while LOTH pays around two dollars a pound. With this partnership, the farmers can double their income in three years. Soon, these farmers can cover their children’s school fees, buy food to diversify their diets, afford basic medical care, and maybe even save a little for the future.

A coffee tree before its cherries are ready for harvesting.
A coffee tree before its cherries are ready for harvesting.

There are many more aspects to this program that I will explain in the coming weeks, but for now, I wanted you to know why we are here, and what we plan to do in the near future. We truly hope you will join us in our efforts to empower Rwandan farmers to create sustainable communities.