Friday, 28 November 2014

Catching up with friends

Yesterday was exhausting - I addressed Rwanda Yearly Meeting/Friends Church for 2 hours, coping with several interruptions in the power supply cutting off both microphone and projected photos. Afterwards I would have liked to go and lie down. But the plan was to meet a group of pastors' wives and hear about their activities while treating them to supper. After heavy rain it was too cold to sit outside. All the private rooms were occupied. So we huddled round a low table with minimal lighting. I spread out all my remaining seed packets but rationed the women to two choices each. There may be more when I get back to Kigali next week after a round trip to the north west with Rachel.

This group has been in formal existence for more than 10 years and is currently convened by Gaudance (wife of Augustin and mother of Justin, of whom more after Saturday). It started as a savings club, collecting from all members monthly then giving to one a sum big enough to finance a trading activity, for instance. They have gone on to encourage family activities and work with teenagers on the problems of being pastors' children, expected to model perfection. They need money to run activities in the long school holidays. I had to tell them I could see no way to help, apart from reviewing and advising on any grant applications.

This morning I installed myself at the African Bagel Company for the morning. First Rachel, who has been in Kenya preparing to bring 'Turning the Tide' (an active nonviolence programme) to Rwanda, came to plan next week's trip: 3 nights away in 3 guesthouses visiting 4 groups or individuals. Confirmation depends on Rachel consulting 2 people we couldn't get hold of, then she will book the guesthouses. I have only to think about packing.

Rachel, at the cafe in a garden she planted herself when this was the pastor's house and her husband Bucura was the pastor.

When I left, two years ago, Rachel was trying to make counselling her main occupation. She is still trying. There are plenty of potential clients but hardly anybody prepared to pay. She also works at her family's charity, 'Gate of Hope Ministries', mainly providing counselling and refuge for abused wives and servants. She has several other projects and continues to work voluntarily for the church, focussing on training Sunday School teachers now she has handed on the women's work. She is indefatigable.

As we are finishing our conversation Solange M arrives, right on time. I went to her wedding during my first project visit. She worked with me several times with Batwa and still has a video clip I took of climbing to a remote village. Now she has a daughter and a son and is completing her degree in social sciences. Her husband, an army officer, has just come home after 14 months in South Sudan with the UN force and the children hardly know him. But basically her life and health are better than seemed likely.

We are joined by Solange N, who also worked with me and has recently offered a 'Growing Together' component to a training for women at a remote Friends church. She has little work, however, like far too many of her contemporaries. She says little, and my French isn't up to generating a great deal of conversation. Then Solange M reveals that Solange N's employment prospects ought to be improving after a recent distinction in accountancy finals.

After I took this picture Solange got out her phone and showed pictures of her children. Then we found the SD card in my camera still had images from my last visit, encouraging reminiscence.

A very pleasant morning.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Not much to look at

I've been up to Friends Peace House this afternoon to talk with Matt, the agronomist volunteer with MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) who arrived just as I was leaving 2 years ago. You probably don't want the details of the 5 organisations loosely linked for his work. But you might like to know that 2 years into a 3 year placement he is focussing on cover cropping. He took me out to a patch of ground adjacent to where we were planting seeds last week. Here is one of the legumes being used to fix nitrogen and also to cover the ground during the dry season.

And here are the vigorous plants spreading over an area which was otherwise bare through out the dry season until grass sprouted after the rain. In the background some newly developed - not genetically modified - beans with extra iron are climbing.

In an adjacent plot is the ongoing field trial for 3 kinds of legume planted under maize. The growth is too small to photograph at this stage.

As Matt gave me a lift 'home' ahead of more rain he realised he'd forgotten my invitation to his wedding, to a Rwandese met through running, for the day before I leave for home. He and Claire are intending to stay in Rwanda, though he will need a proper paid job, so he will be able to keep a friendly eye on Rwandese he hopes to find to take over from him in the various locations throughout the country.

Demonstration fields are encouraging the spread of best practice and providing sites for trials, like Matt's own described above. Some assumptions are being challenged. For example he tells me that ground cover on sloping land has been shown to be more effective than terracing for retaining topsoil. Rwanda's 'thousand hills' have uncounted thousands of terraces: it will be a great saving of labour if they don't need to be frequently repaired.

Meanwhile Matt has been experimenting with planting leguminous trees round the leading edges to stabilise the structure - traditionally done with elephant grass for feeding cows. Another saving of labour may be on the way, for the ministry of agriculture has this year for the first time added no-till to the list of possible developments. Enormous labour is expended on turning the soil with heavy hoes. Life could be getting a little bit easier.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Chaya revisited, and garden improvement

I've just gone back to my final 2012 post and added text and pictures. This is the follow-on

David Bucura, pastor at Gasharu for many years, has moved to the main Friends Church at Kagarama now he is Legal Representative again after a 7 year gap. His vision was that the large grounds of the church, guest house, hostel and conference room should be an oasis of beauty and tranquility. It took several years and many discussions before the congregation was behind him. Ironically, a good beginning to the transformation has been achieved even as he moves on. The churches are not separate, however, and Rwanda Yearly Meeting will be held at Gasharu next week.

Those who don't usually come here may be as surprised as I was yesterday. The church administrator and new pastor's wife, Ruth, happy in motherhood after 6 years of trying, wanted to give me a tour. Here she is in front of a plot which was nothing but worn grass and broken down trees, abandoned to the children.

And here is a fine flower bed at the newly secure back entrance.

Some of the land is now being used productively, with beans and isogi (a native vegetable rich in iron) between yet more chaya.

I asked who will eat the produce: church members will share it and the kitchen for the conference facility may also use some.

There may be a grant application in the making here. Success can breed success and there's no question of the communal commitment now. Funds have been found for regular garden maintenance. There are half a dozen mango trees and a couple of avocados, some past their best but some very productive. I ask if the children get any of the fruit. 'Oh yes, we sit them down after Sunday school and slice avocado for them.' I hope to get a picture. If funds can be found the next phase will be to plant oranges and lemons and some young successors for mango and avocado.

Meanwhile, here's a happy conjunction of hibiscus and mango at the entrance to the guest house, and then the macadamia tree which got off to a bad start 4 years ago in the era of the neighbourhood goat depredations but has made a good recovery.


It must be 5 years now since the official international language of Rwanda was changed from French to English - for reasons I won't rehearse unless asked. I noticed immediately on my return that people who were adamant French speakers when I left 2 years ago are now trying a little English on me.

Public signs have mostly changed. Government schools had been instructed to abandon French, though a little is now being taught again. At Mwana N'Shuti students are prepared for an international clientele by learning English and Swahili

French continues to be a lingua franca, however. On Wednesday afternoon, after the morning planting, Antoine convened a group to talk about the new cookery course. The tutors for hairdressing, languages and vehicle mechanics were there, and Clement the entrepreneurship lecturer, and Aline who will teach the cookery course when enough equipment has been assembled. Antoine introduced the event and announced that as Theresa and I are bilingual - and all the Rwandans use French - the meeting would be in French. I said my French had some holes and I might need translation. I also had to explain that my hearing is deteriorating and I was struggling to hear soft voices over the noise from vehicles being repaired and their engines tested nearby.

Theresa had the main role. I haven't learnt much about her work in Friends Peace House or elsewhere but she is clearly more senior than most of the volunteers and is part way through her second year as Antoine's assistant and advisor, it seems. She was born in New Zealand, lives in Canada, and has worked in Vietnam, I think. She had been asked to give an overview of the work, repeating much of what I had already been told but that is the Rwandan way. Her notes were in English. Nobody else present was learning anything new.

Previously I would have smiled inwardly at the awkwardness and potential for misunderstanding but said nothing. Now I am on the way to being an honoured visitor so I spoke up. 'I would prefer this report to be given in English, if you don't mind.' And it was. Subsequent discussion flowed easily in all 3 languages, with translation as needed. This was not primarily a formal occasion or a staff meeting but more of a pitch for funding. It ended with Aline, Clement and Theresa agreeing to draft a grant application, which I could review in time for a second version to be with me when I leave for home.

Yesterday evening Antoine hosted a supper for the 8 volunteers - some new, some well established and one about to leave. Church leaders, lecturers and advisors, staff from Friends Peace House and Mwana N'Shuti, some spouses and volunteers numbered around 30. We sat at a long table, waiting for those coming from work or just keeping African time. Penned in on both sides, I started coughing. Waiters were hovering. I asked for water. 'Cold, madam?' The alternative is room temperature. 'Whatever is quickest. I am coughing badly.' 'You want coffee, madam?' 'No. JE TOUSSE.'

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Revisiting Mwana N'Shuti (Child my Friend)

In 2009, at the beginning of the Growing Together in Rwanda project, I supervised the making of a compost heap in the grounds of this training school for vulnerable teenagers, started by the Friends Church as an initial post-genocide project in 1998. Antoine, my host - with his family - for this visit, is now coordinator of Friends Peace House and director of Mwana N'Shuti on a shared site. One of the men working with me today remembered me from the lesson in compost: here is the current heap being raided for dry material to protect our seeds from excess of sun or rain.

Today's project is to plant a section of the school field with some of the seeds I've brought from home. The great bundle of packets, donated because they will be out of date by next year's spring planting, enthralled Antoine's family on Tuesday evening. The tendency here is for any difference of variety to be met with suspicion - a lettuce or cabbage with a pink tinge must be diseased, for example. Antoine made a selection suitable for experimental planting: a dark cabbage (only white is known here, apart from a kale from Kenya which some are prepared to try), two kinds of sweet peppers, leeks (which don't even have their own name in Kinyarwnda distinct from onion, though I've seen them in the main markets), spring onions and chives, an Italian summer broccoli with small heads ('Yes, it's a kind of cauliflower, but you cut the florets and more should grow'). Finally there are 3 kinds of lettuce. I explain that they may not germinate if the temperature is too high, even in the shade.

A team has been assembled including two members of the conservative agriculture programme, the visiting entrepreneurship lecturer - goodness knows why but Antoine hs his reasons for everything - and some extra muscle power. Safari sets to with sticks, string and a measuring tape to mark out beds a metre wide for easy access. Much time goes on removing stones and grass roots though a first pass with hoes has obviously been done quite recently. Channels are marked and the seeds carefully spaced.

In the foreground Antoine takes his turn at sowing while in the background a shady bed under two trees is prepared for the lettuce

I comment on the gender of the participants. 'Cultivating' is traditionally women's work, and low status. The men are quite comfortable to be changing with the times, though when we come to discussing how these unusual foods might be cooked and eaten they say they'll consult their wives - not a distinctively Rwandan response.

When I first visited Rwanda(as a folk dancer) somebody mentioned a programme devised by two white Zimbabwean farmers they called 'Farming God's way', now renamed 'Foundations for farming'. It recommends various conservative techniques - minimum till, natural compost, terracing for soil and water retention, and mulching to reproduce'God's blanket' which occurs naturally on uncultivated land where leaves and other natural detritus cover the soil and replace nutrients as they rot. Mulching has been widely adopted here. I'll leave our morning's work with a picture of the finished beds. The stakes are in preparation for making a shade canopy to replace the 'blanket' once the seedlings are established.

Mwana N'Shuti is currently preparing to open a cookery course, assembling equipment and writing grant applications. A small cafe for staff at both establishments and also the motor mechanics who now rent a space for a repair workshop alongside the Mwana N'Shuti training in vehicle maintenance is about to open. It will begin with tea and snacks but could go on to serve food prepared by the cookery students. Some good synergy here.

There is no cafe within convenient distance. This young man arrived with his bucket of filling snacks and settled on the bench next to me. 5 or 6 of the planting team bought from him - a chappati folded over a samosa was the favourite. In the bucket with the food were a fork and a thin plastic bag to use as a glove, so the food didn't have to be handled directly. Somebody asked me jokingly whether he might die from eating with unwashed hands. Consciousness of the benefit of good hygiene has certainly advanced over the years of my visits.