Friday, 9 March 2012

Serious fun with the historically marginalised people

Tuesday 6 March

Yes, I know it's a mouthful, and I still can't get my tongue round the several words in Kinyarwanda, but we're not supposed to say 'Batwa' in public, any more than 'Bahutu' or 'Batutsi': all are'Banyarwanda' now. Ask the Batwa themselves and they tend to say 'Twa is what we are. Why not use our name?' Most readers will recognise parallel problems of nomenclature with other marginalised groups.

I'm working with Theoneste, the leader of the Rwandan HROC* team now he's finished his degree in Nairobi. It's Tuesday morning. I took the bus ride of over three hours from Kigali to Gisenyi yesterday afternoon. I've spent the night in a church guest house because Theoneste has only one room and staying alone at the Friends Peace Centre is not considered safe. T. has driven me in the elderly HROC car for about half an hour along a levelled but rocky road, remarking that shoes and tyres wear out fast here. Benches have been taken from a small locked room at the roadside and carried up a short but steep path to the Friends church. We settle in a corner, under the segment of sheet-metal roof.

Preparing the church as classroom. Later it rained and we all huddled in the small dry patch

Theo first met this group only last week, when he led the basic three day HROC workshop, with two other local facilitators. He and I have agreed that he should lead the first part of the morning, revising last week's work and ending with the trees of trust and mistrust, to give me a smooth link to the imaginary trees of good nutrition and malnutrition. This is the formula devised when I started Growing Together work with Batwa in October 2010 and it seems to work well.

He starts with a welcoming go-round. Each person says their name and the group responds with 'Karibu X'. Karibu (welcome) is one of the Swahili words absorbed into Kinyarwanda. I am the last. 'Elizabeti', I say. 'Karibu Elizabeti' come with smiles of delight.

HROC, like AVP, uses 'light and livelies' to relax participants and integrate any cliques in the group. 'The big wind blows' is an old favourite. Theo leads, translating only the final word for me. 'The big wind blows on....' excitement mounts as he extends the dramatic pause. 'The big wind blows on... everybody!' We all make for a different place. 'Some people hardly moved', he comments. 'You can do better than that.' Two further rounds follow: 'everybody' again, then 'black shoes'. (This includes me because I am, for once, appropriately shod, in my lava-defying smart black trainers.)

Faces are open, postures alert. Now Theo asks participants to say one thing that has changed for them since the workshop.'There used to be lots of violence in our home and now we can discuss things.' 'I was often too angry to eat and now I can be happy.' 'I know now that I am a Rwandan like the other tribes.' 'I have started to talk to my non-Twa neighbour and now she replies.'

These seem to be very big changes for a single week and may be aspirational rather than actual. One woman reports that her neighbour still won't give her a drink of water. (Theo comments later that it's not uncommon to throw water on the ground rather than let a Twa have a drink.) The wife of one man who says he can now handle his anger has a recent black eye. Early days...

Time for more fun. They remember another game: 'What flies?' The leader pats his hands on his thighs and all join in. He says the name of a bird, raises his hands over his head, and all follow.

Something flies!

Eventually he raises his hands but names a creature that can't fly.

Nothing is flying here. The woman on the left was the eventual winner.

Some hands go up and these players are eliminated, with much laughter. I can't play this one for lack of vocabulary so I ask to take photos instead. Theo joins in; I do recognise the word that tells me he's disqualified for gesturing that a cow can fly.

Everybody is paying attention in the go round

Back to work. This time each participant is asked to say what part of the training helped them most. Answers range over pretty much the whole syllabus. Skilfully Theo brings the conversation round to the tree of trust.

But it's not my turn yet. First there's another game. This one is new to the group, I think. An appointed person takes another out of sight and earshot, then returns to the circle. A leader is chosen to initiate movements that everybody else copies. The person who was outside has to detect who is the leader, in three guesses or fewer.

The first round is over in no time – too many eyes were on the leader. Another player is escorted out and round two begins. Another instant result.

For round three, speaking in a whisper, Theo encourages the group to make guessing more difficult. We don't all have to look to the leader – most can copy from somebody else in the circle. The new technique is implemented and this leader stays undetected as the person guessing turns in the circle, looking at face after face for clues. Everybody has had fun again. No didactic point are made. It's time for a five minute break.

Imitating Theo, I point down with the fingers of both hands to indicate roots – on the right the tree of good nutrition, on the left the tree of malnutrition. What are the roots? Answers focus entirely on money versus lack of money; nobody seems to think of growing food rather than buying it. To change that mindset, after all, is why I'm here. I wonder if the new village where the group members have been settled has a plot of land round each house.

I am hoping to fill and plant a demonstration sack here today and supervise several in the village, some way off, tomorrow. Is there any soil we can use here, when other people's crops press on both sides of the narrow path? Well, there would be a place round the back, but who will look after it? I'm prepared if necessary to fill, or half fill, the sack, finding stakes and cutting the holes for seeds without wasting real seeds in a place where they won't be tended.

Then Theo has a better idea. On our way up we gave a lift to a church member who lives by the road below the church. We can set up the sack there. Don't we need to ask him before we all troop down? No, it will be OK.

It's more than OK. By the time the group has fanned along the road, looking for stones of the right size for the core, neighbours and passers by are gathering. When the sack is full and staked, I have to ask for regrouping so members of my class get a chance to come forward and see what will happen next. As the holes are cut and seeds inserted, I count more than 50 adults and children. My teaching diagramme is circulated – thank goodness for lamination. The desire for entertainment overcomes any hesitation about mixing with these marginalised people. Briefly at least we are the heart of the community.

Watching the work. The sack is at the far left

*See the footnote to 'A day witth Alphonse', posted 23 Feb.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Helping in Byumba (part 2)

On Sunday we woke to heavy rain. Rachel duly arrived in town, but it was too wet to walk to the church service, as planned, so she came by cab to join me and meet D & V. Eventually the rain eased and we set off to meet the little group with whom she had worked during the end of year school holiday. The report of that work can be read at My purpose now was to meet the children and take some pictures.

Two girls and two boys, aged between 10 and 12, came to meet with us; the teenager who leads the group had another obligation. What a small beginning, I thought, compared with training whole classes of teachers. And how small is Growing Together compared with VSO International, or even VSO in Rwanda.

However, for these children we are able to start a process that should be able to continue without reliance on continued handouts. There is no question of their need. All are small for their age. One of the girls has the moon face and pot belly indicative of malnutrition – Rachel will make a point of visiting her home.

They tell me they need money for food, for school fees, for uniform. I tell them that the people providing the money to get them started on this project will be particularly happy if they begin to grow and eat vegetables: if they do well thy will have some to sell. We go immediately to look at the place where they might start some sacks and Rachel briefs the neighbours.

Accompanied by Francois-Xavier, the pastor whose smallholding I have admired over a couple of years, we set off to see the rabbits. The children collect fresh food for them every other day. They are a good breed, F-X tells me. They look healthy and the three females are pregnant, so there should soon be something to sell. Pictures are taken. The children with Rachel and the rabbits...

...and this time with Francois-Xavier and me

Yvette-Marcelline greets me with the closest, warmest hug I have yet had in Rwanda. Her vegetable garden continues to be productive, with a mixture of sacks, raised beds and various containers. I love it here. But there is nothing to detain us. The children leave and we walk up to the bus stop.

Ten minutes pass with animated conversation between Rachel and Francois-Xavier and halting French between Marcelline and me. Then I ask Rachel to translate. M hopes I will visit again. She would like money to buy goats – not for herself, I think, but for the children and perhaps others.

Byumba is where the army of invasion/liberation was held back from advancing by UN forces, for three years before the genocide. Their behaviour was far from exemplary, with large numbers of men killed and women raped. But all that is supposed to be in the past now.

Orphans from the war are now adults, though interruptions to their education mean some of Dorothy's students, for example, are far older than the teenagers one might expect from their educational stage. Clearly there are many households struggling to survive and many children desperate for support. Handouts are not the answer, especially if they arrive out of the blue without the recipients being involved in setting goals and priorities. But these children know what they need. I trust Rachel to work holistically with them. Firm Foundations for Future Families (5F) is the title of her project – rather grand, perhaps, but certainly work I am happy to support.

Waiting for the bus with Yvette-Marcelline

Pastor and wife make farewells and we settle onto the bus back to Kigali. I've said I won't work here again. I think, though, I may pay one last visit.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Helping in Byumba (part 1)

I had two reasons for visiting Byumba over the weekend – to see my friend Dorothy, returned to a second VSO posting, and her husband Vern; and to meet a small group of children undertaking a project led by Bugenimana Rachel and funded by the children and young people of Ealing Quaker Meeting. I have previously worked here three times with a group of Friends Church women, including the pastor's wife, Yvette-Marcelline, whose picture was on my first end-of-year leaflet, with her productive vegetable sacks.

Dorothy's Voluntary Service Overseas posting is to a teachers' training college cum secondary school. Students who don't do well enough in the exam at the end of Secondary 3 (year 9) to progress to academic courses preparing for university can have another 3 years of secondary education plus training as primary school teachers, though the entitlement to free education in state schools ends with Sec 3. Many of these students don't want to teach, and will use their first working years going to evening classes in preparation for something with better pay and status. However, these are the teachers primary students get, so training them in better methods than they themselves experienced – and their teachers before them – can only be beneficial.

Rwandese education usually follows the method introduced by the Belgian colonials: teacher writes on the board, students copy into their notebooks, students learn the notes and reproduce them in tests. Most schools have some textbooks, often in sets big enough for a class to use, and typically in unopened packages under lock and key. Dorothy is promoting two innovations – issuing textbooks to the class and using visual aids. She is also advocating for teaching practice, mostly seen by the teacher trainers as a waste of time compared with copying notes about how to teach. Her photos show the classroom she has equipped for the students to make their own wall displays.

Saturday I spent with Dorothy and Vern, whose house has occasional views of Karisimbi, the extinct volcano above Mutura, where I was a couple of weeks ago. I wasn't fortunate enough to see this evening view, caught by Vern, but there was enough sunshine for me to try to capture the valley between house and college.

The towers of the Roman Catholic cathedral, adjacent to the college, can be seen on the skyline. The previous image shows some of what lies in the intervening valley. Understandably, Dorothy doesn't walk straight down and up again to get to and from work, but follows the ridge.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Food journeys

This piece was written for the Ealing Quaker Meeting newsletter, whose theme this time is journeys.

It's a goal of British campaigners that consumers get fresh, nutritious food, travelling short distances and with trading relationships of equality. What about Rwanda?

First the plusses. Many fruit and vegetables are harvested and delivered daily to local markets or sold informally at the side of the road. Many people eat mostly the local staples – potatoes in the cooler north, cassava and sweet potatoes in the hotter, drier south and east. Because of the lack of refrigeration, most milk is consumed by the owners of the cow or sold to their close neighbours, and vegetables are bought every day or two. Beans are grown everywhere, stored in sacks, and eaten most days by most people. Green bananas are also ubiquitous, popular and affordable.

Local transport is in sacks or baskets or on trays, often carried on the head. For bigger loads a bicycle is either ridden or wheeled.* This low carbon system is supplemented by trucks that drive around picking up, for example, several tons of potatoes to be taken into town. Also on the main roads are huge lorries, sometimes labelled as carrying petrol or 'goods in transit' but more often anonymous.

Now some qualifications. It is usual for a small farmer to grow one or two kinds of vegetable for market but not to keep any for eating at home. Many people eat no fruit because all food should be cooked - we are not goats. So vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common, even when ugali (made from cassava, maize, sorghum, millet or combinations thereof) is eaten in large quantities with beans.

Sorghum makes a popular porridge as well as a slightly alcoholic beer. But planting it is now forbidden in large parts of the country. Even potatoes are banned. In more and more areas farmers are instructed to sow more and more maize, and undersized plants can be seen in many areas, often quite shrivelled up. It's taken me three weeks of asking around for the reason. Now I have it: somebody important has opened a factory producing maize meal. These sheds for drying maize cobs have recently appeared all over the place

More generally, there's insistence on monocultures under a policy called 'consolidation'. Local farmers, who traditionally grew several crops in a small field, don't like it but they have no choice and no voice. Presumably the ministry of agriculture forms its policies with advice from agribusinesses, who sell fertiliser and pesticides as well as a few 'improved' varieties of seeds. And perhaps, I'm told, the officials have seen something working in a more developed country and think it will be beneficial for us to copy it.** It's fortunate for my work that another part of the government is encouraging – even insisting on – kitchen gardens. Fields and compounds seem to be different domains.

Self-sufficiency in food production is a government goal, and makes good sense. Exports to the East African Community – where Kenya, Ugandan and Tanzania have recently been joined by Rwanda and Burundi – are growing. Rwanda produces some of the best coffee beans in the world and increasingly farmers are being helped to form cooperatives to process the raw 'cherries' to get a better profit from the crop. Pyrethrum (for insecticide) and milk also used to be processed here before the war; now a new pyrethrum factory has opened, and the bottled water company owned by the president's family has branched out into UHT milk (including semi-skimmed) and bottled fruit juices. Restaurants tend to offer Nestle powdered milk, imported from Poland or Holland.

This tin was lying in a pastor's garden, next to where the sack was to be planted...

Some sugar is grown and processed here, but the best is exported and what remains is poorer quality and more expensive than that imported from Uganda. Why would anybody buy it?

...and here's the sack

Rice imported from Tanzania, Vietnam and China is said to be better quality than that produced locally; poor people don't eat it anyway. Similarly, a little wheat is grown, but bread is not a staple and pasta (from Uganda or Kenya, or Turkey, or Italy) is considered too expensive for ordinary people.

Eastern Province has a government scheme to produce macadamia nuts. Some are reaching the supermarkets, now the trees are five years old, but they're more expensive than the imports from Kenya. And in any case, few people even know of the existence of nuts at all – they're another luxury for rich people.

In summary, there is trade within the region; there are some imports from further afield (and among non-food items soap, for example, may come from Indonesia or from Rwanda itself); enough different foods are produced for complete nutrition. There is severe rural poverty and hunger, however, despite some good soils and adequate rainfall for most of the country. Food miles are not the problem.

*The strangest use for a bicycle I've yet seen was the transport of a coffin - presumably uninhabited- resting across the rear passenger seat, accompanied by one young man at the handlebars, one at the head and one at the foot.

**On a recent drive to the east, I saw a huge area of dried up maize. What's that about, I asked. 'This land belongs to an army training establishment. They're probably demonstrating modern practice.' Yes, quite. But will the lesson be learnt?