On the Jer. 29 verse

The verse that Zoe has chosen as a sort of symbolic touchstone is the part in Jeremiah 29 where he says

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Jer. 29:11, NRSV

That’s a great-sounding verse, and we have it on one of the t-shirts we’ve gotten from Zoe. I’ve sometimes heard it in other context besides Zoe.

I always had a tiny problem with it, though, and that is that it sounds a little saccharine, a little Hallmark-y. “Don’t worry, says the Lord, everything is going to be ok.”

It’s a bit outrageous to present that verse as if it will comfort orphans who are struggling every day to avoid starvation.

As Christians, though, we do have faith that everything will turn out ok, even if things seem hopeless now, and we do ask people to just have faith. That’s the line, anyway.

But I think it’s worth looking at the context, as Rachel, our trip leader, mentioned one night:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Jer 29:4-14, NRSV

Get on with your lives. Build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children. Work for the welfare of your community (even though you are exiles in its midst), because the benefit of the community will redound on you. It’s going to take a long time. Keep the faith and stay in touch with God.

And that, to me, is a lot less saccharine.

On Islamic kids in our group

Here beginneth (or endeth, depending on what order you’re reading these blog posts in) a handful of more “philosophical” blog posts, of various lengths.


If you look at the picture of us visiting our (UUMC’s) Imbaraga “Power” group, you may see a couple of kids whose heads are covered.

These kids are Islamic. I consider this a mark of what kind of mission we’re engaged in. We offer support and comfort because that is what God calls all of us to do. We do not require those who receive what we have to offer to profess a faith that Jesus Christ is the (sole?) savior of the world, although, of course, we’re happy if they do. (Bearing in mind that merely professing faith is not enough, as James says.)

There are those of other faiths who also respond to a call from God. As Jesus says in John 10:16, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” One example (of many, I’m sure) is the Nigerian (Islamic) imam who sheltered 262 Christians from death at the hands of a mob by offering his own life in exchange.

Some might consider the idea of an imam (or anybody of another faith) following Jesus the shepherd to be belittling or demeaning to their faith. However, if Jesus is God, or if Jesus is God’s representative on Earth, then it’s God that’s calling.

Our actions speak louder than our words, and those actions are our witness.

Erika’s journal of the entire trip

Erika has written up her impressions of the entire trip in one document. Here it is.


ZOE EMPOWERS TRIP, RWANDA 2019

Thursday – Friday, 6/20 – 6/21/19:  We were supposed to arrive in Kigali on Thursday, but American Airlines cancelled our flight from Raleigh to JFK on Wednesday.  There was no other way for us to make our flight to Doha on Wednesday. Fortunately our fellow traveler, Ginny, was awake and got the call from American.  She was able to get all three of us on the same flights on Thursday. After some close connections, the three of us met up with Sandra and her daughter Rachel from Cary getting on the plane in Doha.  The five of us arrived in Kigali Friday afternoon. The Zoe accountant picked us up at the airport, helped us change money and got us to the hotel where we settled in and cleaned up. It was heaven to get a shower after 30 hours of traveling.  We went to dinner at 7, and the rest of the team arrived from their group visit about 7:30. We had brief introductions and then turned in for the night, happy to be able to sleep lying down.

This map shows the districts and Provinces of Rwanda.

Saturday 6/22/19:  On Saturday we drove north to the Gicumbi district to visit Imbaraga “Power” Empowerment Group.  This group is partnered with University UMC (Ginny, John and Erika) and formed in July 2018, so they have been working together for almost a year.  

We first went to the market in Cyumba.  The market doesn’t usually open until around 2 in the afternoon, but group members had come early to set up their goods so that we could get an idea of what they normally have on display.  Yvette had beautiful woven bags for sale which many of us purchased.  

There were also skirts, kids’ shoes, fruits, vegetables and cassava flour (which smells pretty bad, but I guess tastes good).  Members of the US team bought veggies and potatoes to take back to the hotel and between us all we purchased something from each of the kids.  

The kids sell together at the market in this town, as well as in other villages, but each family has its own business.  The kids put 50% of their profits into a group fund and every 6 months they share the dividends. This system allows them to save for big expenses.  They are also able to take loans from the group funds.  

The group’s dream is to grow their business and open shops or become wholesalers.

We heard stories from 8 of the children who sell together in the market:

  • Claudine is 19 and supports 2 siblings.  She wants to buy land for farming potatoes and beans.
  • Jean Nepo is 20.  He sells rides on his bicycle (taxi) and makes money every day to provide for his family (2 siblings).  He uses the group fund to save and pay for student fees and health insurance (Health insurance costs 3,000 RWF (Rwandan francs) per person per year, $3.)  He has invested in farming by renting plots where he grows beans and sorghum. He now has to hire his neighbors to help with the farming because he is so busy with his taxi.  
  • Jonathan has planted potatoes in a rented plot and his first crop will come in August.  
  • Jean Claude is 17 and cares for his 2 siblings.  He bought a goat as an investment. He enjoys riding a bicycle.  It was his dream before, but no one would let him use theirs. Now he has his own and runs it as a taxi.
  • Yvette, 19, has 3 siblings.  Through her business making shopping bags, she was able to buy a sheep which has since given birth to 2 lambs.  
  • Denyse is 17.  She sells sweet potatoes so that she can buy food for her family.  She’s saving in the group fund to buy a sewing machine. She already knows how to sew and will have enough for the machine at the end of July.  Zoe will match what she has saved to help her get the machine.
  • Denyse is 19 and lives with her grandmother.  She sells skirts. With money she made from her business, she was able to buy a sheep for her grandmother to take care of.  The sheep just gave birth to 2 lambs.
  • Denyse is 21 and has 1 sibling.  She sells cassava flour, corn flour, potatoes, salt and soap.  She wants to expand her business to add fish and peanut sauce. She is now renting land and has planted potatoes.  

We left the market to go to the group meeting.  On the way we stopped by Anet’s kiosk. The kiosk belongs to the church.  

  • Before Zoe, Anet was dying of hunger.  Now she has her own business. Because the kiosk is between the church and the school, it’s a perfect location.  She received a goat from Zoe. When the goat had babies, she kept the goat and sold the mother to expand her business.  She only eats a little of her profit so that she can continue to grow her business.

Several of us bought some goodies from Anet, and Josh bought a bunch of candy.  (Later, when Epiphainie passed out the candy, the kids each very carefully took one piece and passed the bag to the next person.  Very different from what we see at home.)

We then hiked up to the church where the group greeted us with a welcome song  “Come in, you are blessed, sit down and be welcome”. Yvette opened the meeting with a prayer.  

The US team introduced ourselves.  The group thanked us and then did lots of dancing to show how happy they are.

The Chairperson, Beatrice, introduced the other officers:  Victoire is the mentor, Yvette is the VP, Harriette is the secretary and Jean Nepo is the treasurer.  

Beatrice told us about the group.  

  • Before Zoe, most of the children were total orphans, meaning they had no parents.  They were living in extreme poverty, were unable to attend school and were hungry. Most of the group lived on the street, begging.  They had poor hygiene. Then they met Zoe and their lives started to change.  
  • For Beatrice, the first thing Zoe did was give her hope through the Jeremiah scripture (Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”).  She began to believe in hope for the future so she committed to work hard and to live.
  • Each of the children got a life principle to help them achieve their dream.  The Zoe staff gave them an opportunity to choose what they wanted to do and to develop a business plan, and everyone got a grant to start a business.  Some of them are still in vocational school.
  • Now that they are earning money, their siblings are back in school and they have health insurance.  They went through nutritional training, earned vegetable seeds and have planted kitchen gardens. They helped each other clean their homes.  Before Zoe they were sleeping on floors, but they learned how to make beds and now they sleep in beds. They’ve also build shelters so that their animals are not sleeping in the house anymore.  
  • The group has been trained on birth control and sexual health.  Before Zoe, men could tell them all sorts of lies: that they wouldn’t get pregnant during the week, that they wouldn’t get pregnant if they were holding a specific talisman, etc.  Men would also abuse them and take advantage of them when they were trying to find work or food. Now the girls know how to protect themselves. Now they have the knowledge and strength to say, “no more sex until marriage” or to insist that men use condoms.  

Epiphany talked to the group for awhile and we could tell she was asking them questions.  After a bit one of the girls spoke up and told us how men had previously taken advantage of her.  She then said, “Thanks to Zoe, no man can have me make sex for money becuase I can make my own money.”  

  • Jonathan told us that before Zoe he was a “bad boy”.  He lived on the streets and sometimes people would give him money to run errands for them, but he would take the money and run away to another place.  It was not in his nature to be a thief, but he was hungry. Now he no longer has to steal for food. He can earn his own money. Once he started earning money and learned about Jesus, he went back to his home village to ask for forgiveness.  He intended to pay back all the money he had stolen, but when he asked for forgiveness and took responsibility for what he had done, his former neighbors forgave him his debt.
  • Henriette is 20.  Before Zoe she was very poor and had to beg her neighbors for food.  She would ask to do work, but they said she was not strong enough. She would go 2-3 days without eating.  Now she eats every day and is able to care for her two siblings. She sells fruits and veggies and attends sewing vocational school in the mornings. Now people who wouldn’t help her ask her for money and she shares.  She rents a plot in the valley and hires 4-5 women to work on her farm. She had never eaten veggies before, but now she grows her own and eats them every day!

Some of the older kids took 4 of the younger kids outside the building.  When they came back in, each of the young kids was carrying a basket with a bunny in it as a gift for the UUMC visitors.  

Lots of oohing and aahing ensued, and many pictures were taken.  In the end, Epiphany translated Erika’s thanks to the group, told them that as much as we loved the bunnies we had a very long trip home and wouldn’t be able to take them on the airplane with us.  We asked that they keep them for us and that we looked forward to seeing how they multiplied next time we visited. They took the bunnies back, but left the baskets for us to take home as gifts. They then gave each of the US team members bracelets they had made which say Thank You.  John shared a few words with the group and told them how proud we are of them and how impressed. Of course there was more dancing!

One of our other team members, Kelly, blessed us all with a beautiful prayer and the meeting broke up.  

As we were leaving, I opened the sheet with the picture of the group and the members names.  Some of the kids gathered around fascinated by a picture of themselves. More and more kids came up to see.  It was fun to share.

We then moved outside for photos.  

Afterwards we headed back to the hotel for showers, dinner, and a team meeting.  It was a long day. The hotel had graciously cooked upw the vegetables we brought back from the market and they were quite tasty!

Sunday 6/23/19:  Because the NC folks arrived a day later than planned, Sunday, which was intended to be a day of church and rest, became a travel and group visit day.  Albertine, one of the Program Officers, joined us for the trip. (We found out later that Albertine was one of the three staff members who had worked with Epiphany before Zoe came into the picture.)  

On the way to Huye, we stopped in Ruhango in the Musamo district, to visit the Icyerekezo Empowerment Group.  This group is partnered with Erika’s parents’ church, First UMC Hendersonville.  

First we stopped at Charlotte’s house.  

  • She’s 20 and is responsible for her grandfather, her brother, her daughter and another child she adopted after she joined Zoe.  Charlotte took us into her house to show us her storeroom and tell us her story. She lost her mother when she was 5 and her brother was just 5 months old.  She didn’t know how to take care of a baby, she had no milk for him and he cried a lot. She would sleep on her belly with him strapped to her back, just to get him to sleep.  She survived by begging.
  • At one point she was so hungry and hadn’t eaten.  She went to a man to beg for food. He gave her food, but over time, when she couldn’t pay him back, he asked her for sex in return.  She didn’t know she would get pregnant, but she did.  
  • Then Zoe came along and she felt like she had a mother again.  But she was quiet and hardly spoke. The Zoe staff encouraged her to talk, but she wasn’t ready.  Then one night she had a nightmare and called Albertine. She asked Albertine to come over, but to come alone.  She was finally able to share her story.  
  • Through Zoe she has learned about balanced meals, planting a kitchen garden and preparing food.  She had a dream to have a cow so she could have fresh milk.  
  • Charlotte loves that Zoe believes in them and values what they can do.  The staff doesn’t treat them like children. With Zoe they are valued and respected.
  • She grew up alone, feeling like a tree or an animal.  Now she knows she is a human, a girl and loved by God.  With Zoe she got parents and brothers and sisters. She loves this family because they come together to help anyone who needs help.  They all work together at each others’ farms.
  • Charlotte grows ground nuts.  She sells some, keeps some as seeds and eats some.  People eat them roasted or as peanut sauce on rice, bread or potatoes.  She can harvest 2 times a year. 1kg of beans sells for 300-400RWF, but 1kg of ground nuts sells for 1,500RWF.
  • Before Zoe, she didn’t know what meat tasted like, but now she gets it about once a month.  
  • She also has a business selling bananas and she learned about the value of saving.  Her principal: Don’t eat all your profits. No matter how little your profits are, always save some.  She likes to invest in livestock and she saves in the group fund She started with rabbits had 30 after 6 months.  She took money from the sale of rabbits and from the group fund, took out a loan from the group and used the money to buy a cow.  In her second year she rented a plot to grow cassava. She will harvest her first crop in September. She has given each of the kids a chicken to take care of and now each has 4 chicks.  
  • The boy she took in was a total orphan with no family.  Now she feeds him and sends him to school. Now he has a family.  
  • There was a time when she would rather have died and even considered suicide.  Now she can smile and laugh and is happy to be alive. She wanted to give back as soon as she was able.
  • Her latest business is making baskets.  She buys simple baskets and decorates them by weaving papyrus on the outside to increase their value.  She’s now able to pay for electricity in her house. The electricity allows her to work on baskets at night and run her other businesses during the day.  
  • Each time Charlotte achieves a dream, she thinks about her next dream.  Next on her list is to buy a bicycle. She won’t ride it, as women don’t ride much, but she will hire a driver.  When she doesn’t need it for transporting her goods, she will use it as a taxi.  
  • She told us she had heard the saying about teaching a man to fish.  She very proudly said, “Now I fish for myself”. We then went out to see Charlotte’s goat, cow and chickens.  

Before heading to the group meeting, we stopped by Salimani’s house.  

  • Salimani left Icyerekezo Empowerment Group not long after they formed.  When they were doing the initial steps of training on health and hygiene and filling out their dream sheets, he asked “how can I eat dreams?”.  The group members kept looking for him, though and they brought him back into the group in January. They welcomed him back and helped him build a house.  Salimani showed us his house, his three bunnies and his goats. He was so happy. Before we left, Mark led us in blessing Salimani’s new house.

We got to the government community center where the group meeting was to be held.  We stopped for a bathroom break and found… shopping next door!!!! Several members of the Icyerekezo Empowement Group, members from another group and some Zoe Empowerment graduates gather at the center to sew and sell their fabric goods and baskets.  We did A LOT of shopping.  

We then went to the group meeting.  We had limited time because we had an appointment at the museum, but Etien, the MC, told us a bit about who they are.  

  • It is made up of 27 families with 87 individuals and is in its second year.  
  • He told us how they work together and play together.  
  • He also told us that Zoe doesn’t discriminate.  They include people with disabilities. At that, 8 of the young men came up to show us what they can do.  Two held a net while the other six played volleyball. One of the members, Leo Pierre, has a permanently damaged left hand.  Another lost one leg above the knee. All six got down on the floor to play so that they were all playing on the same level. There wasn’t time for them to play a full game, but they were able to show off their skills and it was a joy to see them playing.  

After the game Epiphany said we had time for a couple of stories.  

  • Leo Pierre, Chairman of the group, never knew his parents.  They died when he was little and he moved from home to home.  At one point his hand was injured and he was not taken to the clinic, so it didn’t heal well and has permanent damage.  Now he is president of the Youth Center and conducts many trainings for other youth. Leo Pierre told us how Zoe has taught them to care for one another.  Siblings have been supported to start their own businesses and the group members have moved up an economic level.   
  • Salimani started with the group in July of 2017, but it was harder than he thought it was going to be.  As the program facilitators were leading them through the dream process, Salimani said, “How can I eat dreams?” and he quit and went back to living on the streets.  The group didn’t forget him. When Charlotte found him in the city she brought him back to the group and they welcomed him in. He has been back with the group since January, he has a new house and he invested in bunnies and goats.  (One more example of how the kids take care of each other, support each other through thick and thin, and never give up.)
  • Stephanie is 20.  She had an unwanted pregnancy when she was 17.  Both she and the baby suffered from malnutrition.  She was covered in sores and dropped to 40 or 45 kg.  Since she joined Zoe, she started a business selling doughnuts.  She is now healthy and weighs 80 kg. She has been saving and has enough to build a house in the next few months.  Then she will start saving for the education of her child. Before Zoe she had no parents, no siblings and no friends.  Now she has all three.

The group presented Erika with a tablecloth for Hendersonville FUMC, a bag for herself and a painting for her parents.  The painting is of a child drinking milk. Etiene said, “We were hungry children, but you have given us food and water.”  The group also presented the other women with small bags and the men with great hats!

Then Charlotte came in with one of her baskets and presented it to Erika for Hendersonville FUMC.  Not only is it a beautiful basket, but it was full of groundnuts!

After the group meeting we drove on to the Ethnographic Museum in Huye.  Epiphany had arranged for a cultural event for us with a troupe that presents traditional dances with singing and drumming.  

We had a guided tour of the museum, learning about pre-colonial times in Rwanda.  

We then checked in at Mater Boni Consilii, a hotel run by the Catholic church, had dinner and a team meeting and turned in for the night.

Monday 6/24/19:  Today the team split up to visit Ingenzi (partnered with Erika, John, Corinne and friends) and Umucyo (partnered with Tarrytown UMC: Amanda, Amelia & Josh, Rachel and  Melissa) groups. First we all went to a government complex where many Zoe members and graduates rent space. Part of the Zoe model is to partner with and integrate into the community.  Other people also rent space here and the Zoe kids often hire other community members to work for them.  

First we visited with some Zoe welders.  The three of them were working on metal windows.  They were tight on time as they were joining with other community members later to help build shelves for coffins for a genocide memorial.  

Next we went to a shop where members of Zoe were making and selling sandals, knitted goods and tailored goods.  

  • The knitters have contracts to make school uniform sweaters. 
  • Esperanza is a tailor.  Her business making dresses, shirts, skirts, cloth shopping bags and placemats  helps her pay school fees for her siblings in secondary school. She has a second business buying and reselling beans, which allows her to pay for medical insurance for herself and her two siblings. Esperanza’s dream is for the shop to become a cooperative so they can be wholesalers of “Made in Rwanda” goods.
  • Vanessa has earned the money to bring electricity into her home and to pay health insurance and school fees for her siblings.  
  • Eric, who makes shoes, has been able to buy a plot of land and plans to build a house.  His land cost 700,000RWF.
  • Jean Baptist has built a new house and moved in.
  • Chantal graduated in 2010.  She’s now married and expecting her own child.

The team split up and Celine, one of the Program Officers, took Corinne, John, Sandra, Rachel and I to visit members of the Ingenzi Empowerment Group at their businesses in Musha in the Gisagara district.  

  • Francoise is 21 and has three siblings (15, 10 & 8).  Her first IGA was selling bananas, which she gets from a plantation.  With the money she raised from that business, she’s bought 2 pigs, 2 goats and 4 hens.  Nows she’s renting 3 plots of land and grows and sells onions. One kg of seeds costs 500RWF and yields 300 kg of onions, worth 100,000RWF.  Not a bad profit margin, especially with 3 harvests per year. Between onion crops she plants tomatoes. With all the business she has, Francoise hires five workers to help grow her onions.  She also has 2 bicycles to transport her goods. She helps her siblings with clothes, shoes and school fees. This year her dream is to buy a motorbike, which will cost 2,000,000RWF (~$2,000) new.  She will hire someone to drive it for her, but she does want to take driving lessons.
  • Nigomugabo is 19 and also has three siblings.  He started out selling groundnuts and doughnuts.  Then he bought land to grow his own produce. He grows and sells tomatoes and carrots, and sometimes sells avocados, which he buys from farmers.  With his profits, he’s invested in 2 pigs and 2 goats. He uses the manure from the pigs and goats for fertilizer and sells the babies. Through his businesses, he’s paid for his own training in construction and pays school fees and medical insurance for his siblings.  His dream is to get a motorbike and attend driving school so he can run a taxi. He plans to start by buying a used bike which will cost him 400,000RWF. He’s already saved 200,000RWF.
  • Damascene’s older sister joined Zoe as head of the household, but she got married, so he took over for her.  He started his IGA with rabbits from a Zoe grant. He used the profits to start a hen breeding and selling business because there is a larger market.  He currently has 15 hens. Previously he was a street kid and homeless, but he has been able to build a house for himself with windows and a roof from Zoe.  His dream is to get a motorbike so that he can carry his hens further and use it for a taxi.  
  • We all pitched in and bought bananas from Francoise, tomatoes and carrots from Nigomugabo and a chicken from Damascene.  We wanted to support each of them in their businesses. We knew we could take the fruit and veggies back to the hotel for the staff to fix for us but we didn’t know what we were going to do with a chicken.  Sandra asked Celine and she suggested we take it back to the hotel. Everyone except John vetoed that idea. She then suggested that we ask Damascene to bring it to the group meeting and that we present it back to the group to take care of for us.  
  • We also stopped in to say hi to Jean Domecene from the Unity Empowerment Group, also in it’s 2nd year.  He is 20 and owns a small shop which his sister (16) helps him run. Their 3 other siblings are in school.  They have a home, but Jean Domecene sleeps in the shop to protect it.  
  • Next we went to Laurent’s veterinary pharmacy.  Laurant was able to attend school supported by a community member and he took vet school classes.  When he graduated, he was able to open the vet pharmacy. He also helps community members with sick livestock.  With the profits from his business he bought a motorbike and a cow, supported his sister in tailoring training and bought land to build her a house.  He hires people to work his land and is renting a sewing machine for his sister. His dream is to move to the big city and open a big pharmacy. He wants to offer internships to teach others and he wants to be able to solve all his family’s problems.  

We hopped back in the trucks to drive around to the group meeting.  As we drove up we could hear the singing and clapping and the younger kids were crammed in the doorway to greet us.  

Laurent was the MC for the meeting.  

Jean Baptist, the chairman, gave us a report on the group.  

  • There are 26 families and a total of 81 children in the group.  He thanked us for the training they’ve gotten. They’ve learned how to prepare nutritious meals and how to be clean and healthy.  They started a group project growing tomatoes but now grow cassava. Zoe has helped group members who were sick get help and children who were homeless get homes.  All the kids now have toilets.  
  • Most households have no parents and some of the kids were thieves before Zoe, but now they can buy what they need.  Zoe helped them get vocational training. The group has a lot of agriculture projects and they all have kitchen gardens, so they now have nutritious food.
  • Eric told us that before he met Zoe he was a street kid and didn’t have a good place to live.  He has learned a – lot with Zoe and started a business of hen breeding and selling to feed his family.  Before, finding food and renting a house was hard, but now things have changed. His siblings go to school, can eat and have medical insurance and they have a house.  He has even bought a bicycle to transport his goods. Eric makes shoes and dreams to have a large shoe factory so that he can give jobs to other children.   

We noticed that each group we visited had its own special clap/cheer.  Ingazi gave “flowers” by waving their hands, which was easily my favorite.  John has a great video!.  

The group presented each of us with a pair of beautifully made sandals and Rachel spoke to the kids and told them how she’s their age and is so inspired by them.  We then presented the chicken to the group, who decided Pascal should be the one to take care of it. He’s 16 and is a “total orphan” (no parents). Rachel got to present the chicken to Pascal.  Corinne closed us in prayer and then we took pictures.  

We met back up with the other half of our team at a shop run by some of their group members, so of course we did more shopping.  We then stopped by a cafe so we could all stock up on Rwandan coffee. The cafe roasts their own coffee and we sat on the porch enjoying cappuccinos and conversation.   

We still made it back to the hotel in time to have a couple of hours “down” time.  Most of us spent the time figuring out how to pack all the things we’d bought!

MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:

  • Aids is the main illness that takes parents, but malaria and other diseases also common
  • Need to have an ID to get insurance and to own property, but getting an ID requires having a birth certificate, which is sometimes hard to get.
  • There are Volunteer health workers in the villages who act as midwives.
  • On the drive to Kansi in Gisaraga district we passed by a home with 4 units owned by Zoe graduates (graduated in 2015).  We also saw a cluster of homes in the distance where the government had granted land for Zoe homes. The kids often build and live close together.
  • Houses in the Gisaraga district often collapse in the rain because they are old and not built well.
  • Program Facilitators/Program Officers are each in charge of a certain number of groups in an area, but they always work in pairs.  They will often visit other areas to share their expertise.
  • Kids also visit each other’s areas to train on different skills.

Tuesday 6/25/19:  Tuesday was our last day to visit groups.  We stayed in the Gisaraga district to visit two groups partnered with Woodlands UMC (Mark and Nycki) who joined Zoe in January.  

First we went to Jean Claude’s house where the Urumuri group was working together to build and plant Jean Claude’s kitchen garden.  

  • Jean Piere, the Chairman, told us how working together to build each other’s gardens is an example of how Zoe supports mutual help between the group members.  This is the second garden they have built for a member. It will take them about a month to build and plant a garden for each member. For the first few they’re all working together to learn how to do it, but eventually they’ll be able to split up to work on more than one garden at a time.  
  • Before they could build their gardens, the group received training on food security and how to plant and tend a kitchen garden.  Then they received beetroot, cabbage, green pepper, onion, carrot and spinach (amarand) seeds which they sprouted in a nursery. A government staff person volunteered to come in and help them plant the first garden as an example.  
  • The garden is terraced to make the most of water and fertilizer which are put in through the top/center and then spread throughout the garden.  
  • Mary told us how this method allows them to grow more vegetables in a smaller space and conserves water as the water spreads slowly through the garden.  When it is really dry they do water all the terraces.  
  • Jean Piere told us that they work on their individual businesses in the morning and then come together to work on a kitchen garden.  They can build and plant one garden in 2 hours and it will start to produce in 2 months.  
  • Jean Claude presented Mark and Nycki with an amazing toy he had built.  It was a man riding a bicycle that peddled when he was rolled along the ground.  He was made out of an old soccer ball.
  • We then presented the group with raw ground nuts that Tarrytown had received from one of their groups on Friday and Erika had received from Charlotte on Sunday.  The US team members couldn’t take them home and this way the can be used as seeds for new crops.  

Next we went to a storefront to visit several members and hear their stories.  The group started their businesses in March. They told their stories from left to right.

  • Triphanie (Urumuri)  has no parents and 4 siblings, 3 sisters and 1 brother.  Before Zoe she suffered because it was hard to feed the kids.  It was risky as a girl for her to beg, so she worked for food. When she couldn’t get work, though, they didn’t eat.  Six months into the program she’s already seeing changes. She stopped doing labor for food in March and is now free from exploitation.  When she has made enough profit selling her vegetables, she takes some from cooking… not before. She doesn’t eat her capital, only the profit.  She will take enough vegetables for one meal and add cassava bread. She has been able to buy clothes for her siblings and has joined the group fund to save for business expansion.  She is happy to have broken the cycle of poverty and she’s being careful so that she doesn’t go back. With her profits, she has invested in a goat, has rented a plot for 2 years and planted her first cassava crop in May, which will be harvested next May.  Her dream is to build a home. She has been renting one room for her and her siblings in return for labor, but now that she is busy with her business she will pay 2800 RWF/month for the room.
  • Francine is 18 and was also laboring for food and begging from friends of her parents.  Now she is able to feed herself and her 2 siblings (12 and 8). They live in the house that their parents built.  Francine told us that with her profits she was able to buy the dress she was wearing, the first that she has bought for herself.  Now she has a meal every day and can buy soap to wash herself and her clothes. Her siblings have been able to go back to school. Her first business was selling tomatoes.  She also buys beans from farmers and resells them. She has bought a goat from her savigins and her dream is to buy a cow. 
  • Marie Goreth lost her parents and was lonely and isolated before Zoe.  She was sad because her siblings couldn’t go to school. They were hungry and stigmatized and couldn’t afford uniforms.  She has 2 siblings and a 9 month old baby that was born after she joined the group. With a grand from Zoe, she invested in selling cassava flour.  She rents a farm that is ready to harvest, harvests and processes the cassava into flour and then sells it. From her proceeds she has bought 1 goat and 4 rabbits.  The rabbits are a project for her siblings. She doesn’t have a house, but now she can rent a room or do labor for a room. She keeps some of her profit to invest in more animals, but has bough clothes for everyone.  Her dream is to build a house and is saving money every week. She hopes to have enough money to start her house next year.  
  • Margaritte is 20 and has 3 siblings.  She told how they suffered before Zoe because they were orphans.  She lost her parents when she was 10 and as the oldest, she had to take responsibility for everyone.  She is sad remembering when she couldn’t feed them and they suffered from malnutrition and skin diseases.  She had to beg because people said she was too weak to work and wouldn’t hire her. The house her parents left collapsed and the room they rented was old and leaked so they couldn’t stay in it during the rainy season for fear of collapse.  She still struggles and needs a safe home, but thanks to her business skills and learning how to cook balanced meals, they can eat and are recovering. Her business is selling bananas and she’s been able to buy a goat. Her dream is to have a house and for her siblings to go back to school.  
  • Japhet is 20 and has a 12 year old brother.  Their biggest challenge is that they are still homeless.  They had a small house, but it was very old and collapsed.  He now lives with a neighbor and works for him every Saturday to pay rent.  He received seed, a hoe and a goat from Zoe, as well as a grant to start a business.  His business is selling cabbage and he was able to plant his own cabbage crop in March and is waiting for harvest.  Thanks to Zoe he has dinner every day. He was able to buy another goats and wants to expand his business to include cassava flour.  He has rented 1 plot for cassava to sell and 1 plot for sweet potatoes to eat.
  • Next we went into a back room where DieuDonne (gift of God) makes and sells his charcoal.  DieuDonne is 20 and has 2 siblings. Before joining Zoe he was hopeless, complaining to God and wondering how God could let this happen.  With Zoe he has seen God’s love. He told us how he learned to choose a good business, looking for something that had a market. He bought trees in a neighboring forest with a grant from Zoe and made charcoal to sell.  He started with 1 sack of charcoal and now can make and sell 4-5 sacks at a time. He knows where in the area it is needed and sometimes even buys from others because he has more customers than he can supply. He also learned that people will not buy from you if you are dirty.  From his profits, he expanded to breeding and selling goats and chickens. His dream is to build a house. He says that it is a blessing to have us visit.  
  • While we were listening to the other stories, we kept hearing a rooster crow and chickens clucking.  After hearing DieuDonne’s story, Francois came in with his chickens. Francois is 20 and started his business selling checking with a grant from Zoe.  He busy them from farmers in the village and sells them in town for 1000-2000RWF ($1-$2) profit. Before Zoe he was lonely, isolated and hungry. He and his 2 sisters (15 and 17) mostly slept outside on the streets.  They are no longer exploited, can eat every day and have money to pay for a room to sleep in. With Zoe he also got a big family with lots of brothers and sisters. He has no words to express his joy.  

After the stories the team bought fruits and vegetables to take back to the hotel.  Josh was excited to get some cassava flour to see how it tastes when it’s cooked. (The hotel cooked it up for us and it was kind of like lumpy, sour cream of wheat… or paste.)  We also got a bag of charcoal (that we gave to the seamstresses who were making skirts and dresses for us to heat their irons) and Mark and Nycki bought a chicken to give to their groups.  Whereas we asked our chicken seller to bring her to the Ingenzi meeting, “Henrietta” came in the bus with us… and then went into the trunk to ride to the group meeting.  

We arrived at the meeting to find the two groups partnered with Woodlands UMC, Dufatanye (Togetherness) and Urumuri (Light), as well as a third group, Twitezimbere (Progress) who do not have a Hope Companion Partner.  (Groups are pictured right to left.) The three groups always meet together and support each other.  

Francois from Dufatanye spoke on behalf of the 2 Woodlands groups.

  • The kids did not know each other before Zoe.  Once they formed their groups, they learned that everyone had faced similar challenges and experiences.  All had experienced exploitation or slave labor just to get food. They never thought about working for themselves.  They didn’t know how others were able to improve their lives.  
  • They found it was important to have the group working together as a family.  
  • The first meeting was about dreaming for the future and they made their first dream charts.  Every family received a grant 3 months ago to start small businesses.
  • Now they can pay to rent a small room.

Pascal, another member of the Dufatanye group, stood up with his 4 sisters to share their story.  

  • Pascal is 20 and his sisters are 10, 15, 16 and 17.  His second oldest sister is also deaf.
  • He was 10 and the youngest was a baby when their parents died.  They had no one to care for them and he was too young to do labor so he begged.  They all ended up with malnutrition.  
  • Their home collapsed so they slept outside and moved from place to place.  They weren’t always able to stay together. They were unable to get help when they got sick.
  • When he was 15, Pascal was sometimes able to get work farming, but he would only earn 200RWF where others earned 800-1000RWF.  
  • He joined Zoe, but when he earned the seeds for his kitchen garden he had nowhere to plant them.  He wondered what to do, so he asked Delphine (the Program Facilitator who works with these groups).  He helped him figured out what to do. She asked if he could borrow land, but he said no. Then she told him to tell the landlord that he would grow vegetables and would share them in return for use of the space.  He talked to the landlord and that worked. When he saw the vegetables growing he was so excited. The landlord even gave him more room so he could plant extra vegetables to sell. He has already harvested his first crop.
  • He received a grant from the group and started a business buying and selling bananas.  
  • Each of his sisters was living in a different place.  One day, though, he came home and found all of them at his rented room.  They were sent back to him when the people they were staying with found out he was in Zoe because they figured Zoe would take care of them.  Now he has to figure out how to take care of them. They are all sleeping together, paying 3000RWF for one room. They don’t have enough food every day, but they have more to eat than they did and some days he eats like a boss.
  • Daphne is like a mother to him.  He sees hope in her eyes. She encourages him and pushes him.
  • Thanks to Zoe he has a new life.  Now he has hope.

Kelly shared Psalm 100 and a message of hope and love.

Then the groups presented each of the US team members with a decorated plate of fruit, saying that it is tradition in Rwanda that they share the first harvest with their parents (tears!).  This gift is even more touching when you realize that this early in the program, few of the kids are food secure and many still don’t have adequate housing. Mark blessed the food and their businesses and we left most of the fruit with them.  

Mark and Nycki told how they had bought a chicken but couldn’t take it home so they wanted to give it back to the groups to take care of it for them.  The kids were very excited. 

After the gifts there was much dancing and celebrating, including “Henrietta” surfing the crowd in her cardboard box.  Before we left, Epiphany told us that the two Woodlands groups had decided to give the chicken to Twitezimbere because they do not have a partner to love and care for them.  (more tears!) They chose the young lady below to be the keeper of the chicken. As chicks are hatched, she will share them with the other members of her group until each member has a hen!

As we were leaving, Epiphanie told us that she’s very worried about these groups.  The area is very poor, so it’s harder for the kids to start businesses. The neighbors don’t have much, so they don’t help.  The groups have a lot to overcome.  

After the group meeting, we headed back to Kigali for our last night in Rwanda.  We stayed in the same hotel (most of us in the same rooms).  We cleaned up, ate, did some packing and headed to bed.  

Follow up:  Before we left for Rwanda, University UMC had decided to partner with another Empowerment Group.  Once we got back to the US, Erika contacted the Zoe office and University UMC is now partnered with Twitezimbere Empowerment Group!

Wednesday 6/26/19:  Wednesday was our last day in Rwanda.  At breakfast we shared the fruit given to us the day before, including the most flavorful mango I’ve ever had (a big thanks to the kitchen staff who cut it up for us).  John and I got pictures with Ginny and Corinne.  

After we had all packed up and loaded out suitcases into the bus, we went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial.  

The Memorial has a Museum that provides the colonial history that set the stage for the genocide in 1994, powerful eyewitness testimonies of the genocide and an exhibition on the history of genociadal violence around the world.  The Memorial is also the final resting place for more than 250,000 victims of the Genocide against the Tutsis. Our time at the Memorial was limited but powerful. I was reminded that no matter how many times the world says, “Never again”, all it takes for the mob mentality to take over is for us to see our fellow human beings as “other”.  

After the museum, we had lunch together at the Hotel Des Mille Collines, more commonly known as The Hotel Rwanda from the movie.  Final pictures were taken after lunch and then we headed to the airport for those of us flying Qatar Airlines to catch our flight.

John, Ginny, Sandra, Rachel, Josh, Amelia, Amanda, Melissa, Rachel and I flew together to Doha, where Josh and Amelia split off and the rest of us flew to JFK.  A young woman, Sarah, from Colorado who had been in Rwanda shared a row with John and I on that flight. We talked a lot about our experiences over the course of the flight.  

When we got to JFK, the NC contingent had a 7 hour layover, so Sandra, Rachel, John and I decided to store our bags and head into the city.  Sarah also had a long layover so we invited her to go with us. We took the Airtran to the subway and the subway to 5th Avenue where we walked over and strolled through Central Park.  

We spent more time traveling back and forth than we had in the park, but it was nice to not just be sitting in the airport.  

We returned to the airport, recovered our bags, said goodbye to Sarah, grabbed some lunch and caught up with Ginny for the short flight home.  

In the end, it was hard to say goodbye at each step, but it was great to be back home.  Can’t wait for our next ZOE Empowers trip, either to Rwanda, Kenya or a new (to us) country!

Trip photos and videos (Rwanda 2019)

I have finally finished collating and captioning photos and videos from the trip, mostly mine, but also some from other folks on the trip (thanks for sharing, y’all!).

Probably the best way to view them is NOT as a “slideshow”, because slideshow doesn’t show the captions. Instead, just make your browser full-screen, click on individual pictures, and use the “Next”/”Prev” buttons to move around. Captions should show up at the bottom of each picture.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/4y58cz9w41sAcssr8

What we pay for (I think)

Zoe staff, initial grants, micro-loans.

I think the staff is really important. In my experience, without pretty constant tangible encouragement, people in difficulty don’t do well. I have heard more than one kid describe the on-the-ground social workers as surrogate parents, which I assume means giving them love and good advice and a kind ear. They can’t do that work without us.

The kids do everything else. They provide all the hustle to make a small business work. Legwork and salesmanship. Sweat equity.

Group meeting, June 25th

(This entry is reconstructed from both my notes and Erika’s notes.)

After we met some of the kids at the marketplace, we hopped back in our bus and drove to the group meeting.

Our drive seemed kind of long and circuitous, but, lo and behold, as we were approaching the meeting place, we saw the same kids, who had apparently walked and beaten us. I guess they walked straight through the valley (or cove, in Appalachian mountain terms) we drove around, and they made good time. Pretty amazing, and I’m still not 100% sure how they did it.

Before we started the meeting, we all felt the need to use the restroom, which brings me to a point I hadn’t remembered about Zoe trips, but which might be important to some people: squat toilets are frequently the only game in town, at least, until you get back to the hotel.

We gathered outside the building where the meeting was going to be held (a pentecostal church of some sort) and I think they were able to keep an eye on us through the windows, because when we were ready, they started singing. It is quite the experience to walk into a church (through the side door) and hear 200 some-odd people singing TO YOU. And they danced, too. I got video, which I’ll put up later. ALL of the families, of three groups, were there, from toddlers on up. We were offered seats up front, facing the children, behind a table set on a small rug. It seemed ceremonious, as if we were both honored guests and people of importance, as if we were an examining board of some sort. It was an odd feeling because, from my point of view, all we did was show up. (Well, and support them with funding and prayer, but in that moment it just felt like we were merely showing up.) It was definitely a special occasion, for all involved, I think.

The three groups were the Dufatanye “Togetherness” group, the Urumuri “Light” group, and the Twitezimbere “Progress” group. The first two groups were partnered with Woodlands UMC from Texas (Mark and Nycki from Woodlands were with us) and the third group (“Progress”) was unpartnered. These three groups always meet together (meaning at the same time and place).

After we were seated, they sang to us songs in (I presume) Kinyarwanda. (Note, by the way, that Kinyarwanda is the language spoken in Rwanda and Kinyaswahili is the language spoken in Kenya. If I said “Swahili” earlier in this blog while writing about Rwanda, I probably should have said “Kinyarwanda”.)

I’m a little unsure of the lyrics (my notes are skimpy, and they were translated to us by Epiphanie), but they were things like “I missed you so much” (from Erika’s notes) and “Let us wash your feet”. There was also a song they had created just for Woodlands UMC. And I think the verse 1 Peter 5:14, “Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.”

Then, Francois spoke on behalf of the two Woodlands groups. He said they offer a prayer for a blessing on us. Before they joined the Zoe working groups, they didn’t know each other, but through the groups they discovered that they had many problems in common. They were exploited and unable to enjoy their childhood. They did not know how to, and could not conceive of any way they could improve their lives without external assistance. Their first meeting was their “vision” meeting, in which they thought about their futures and each constructed, individually, their dream chart (I call it a “chart” because it’s a pictorial representation of their dreams). (I think taking some time to think about the future and get your head out of the present is actually important. Also, having a dream is important. It helps to set a direction and a goal. So many life lessons here.) He thanked us for our support (well… he was probably thanking Woodlands, specifically, but, hey, I’ll take it).

Then, Pascal spoke. Pascal is 20. I have a picture of him. He does not look 20. He has four sisters, aged 17, 15, 16 and 10. The 16-year-old is deaf. (We later wondered whether she was born that way or not. Josh pointed out that untreated illness can cause deafness in children. We still don’t know for sure, but that’s a possibility. That just hurts my heart, honestly.)

Pascal’s parents died when he was ten, and his youngest sister was just a baby. He was too young to work, so he had to simply beg for food. He experienced malnutrition. (These kids present their stories without emotion, but the size of Pascal’s 20-year-old body speaks volumes to me. My own 20-year-old son is a giant compared to Pascal.) Also, Pascal’s house (his parents’ house) collapsed.

(On house collapses: we heard several stories of roofs collapsing during the rainy season. Epiphanie told us that this is because the houses are poorly-constructed in this particular area (it’s very poor, as I mentioned earlier). In addition to that, I make up another story: we saw many houses with really old, one might say “ancient”, tile roofs. I imagine parents who are living in poverty and simply unable to replace aging roofs. Maybe they know how to do minimal, cheapest work to keep them propped up, but then they die, leaving behind ten-year-old children who know nothing about house maintenance (or how to run a small business or what their rights are or how babies are made or the importance of hygiene and mosquito netting, or, or, or…). And after another year or three, the roof simply gives up and collapses.)

So, Pascal was sleeping on the street (or in the bush). He was unable to keep his siblings together. He used to sleep where charcoal was burned, both for warmth and for safety from animals. By age 15 he was laboring for food, but he was underpaid grossly. He was frequently ill (yay, malnutrition), and, since he didn’t have health insurance, he simply had to suffer. Between his frequent illness and hunger, he didn’t really grow well. And he was always separated from his sisters. (I can only barely imagine the strength of character required to join a Zoe group under these conditions, knowing that Zoe does not feed children, but instead teaches them to care for themselves. It’s not an instant fix.)

After he joined the Zoe working group and completed his initial training, he got some seeds from Zoe. He had no idea what to do with them. The social worker for his group (one thing Zoe provides groups is social workers; and I believe we pay their salaries with our support), Delphine, told him to plant them on some land. He went to a landowner and asked to borrow to some land on which to plant the seeds. The landowner said “no”. So, Pascal goes back to Delphine to tell her he’s stuck, and she tells him to offer to share the crop with the landowner. That worked. He was able to plant the seeds.

I feel like this highlights an important aspect of Zoe. Pascal had a problem, but Zoe didn’t solve it for him. They taught him, they coached him, they gave him a script, and they gave him support. But he solved his own problem. This is an important first step.

Amaranth grows fast. As Pascal saw it growing, he was very excited. (Imagine seeing your first crop sprout and imagine having a longer view than just day to day.) The landowner loaned him more land on which to grow vegetables, for a similar promise to share the crop. Pascal has now harvested his first crop.

He got a micro-grant which he used to buy bananas (wholesale, again) and is selling them retail.

He has finally managed to gather his family under one roof, and they are all now sleeping in the same bed. He pays 3,000 RWF per month in rent. (That’s about $3.00.) They still don’t have enough to eat, but at least they can eat every day. (Imagine not having enough to eat, but feeling fortunate to be able to eat every day. It boggles the mind.)

Pascal now has hope. To him, Delphine, the social worker is like his own mother. His appearance has changed unrecognizably from his earlier appearance.

(At this point, Kelly, who is from Bayside Church, near Sacramento CA, asked Epiphanie to translate as she read the beginning of Isaiah 61 and all of Psalm 103.)

At this point, the groups (through their spokesperson) informed us that it is a tradition in Rwanda to share the first harvest with your parents, so they had chosen to share their first harvest with us. And several members of their group came out with a lot of fresh fruit on platters, all of which they were giving to us. It was an embarrassment of riches. We can’t take fresh fruit through customs on the trip back and it was more than we could eat, so Epiphanie helped us out by explaining that we couldn’t take it all, for those reasons, but that we would take some from each platter (along the platters themselves, which were also gifts to us). We snagged the mangos. I’ve mentioned how delicious fresh mangos are when prepared professionally by the hotel staff. Honestly, the grocery store mangos here just do not compare.

Mark and Nycki then also told the group they had bought a chicken at the small marketplace I blogged about yesterday (? I think it was yesterday), and, since they couldn’t take it home, they were hoping they could leave it with the group for safekeeping. The two Woodlands groups agreed to help out by taking care of the chicken.

Then, there was more dancing and singing. They even dragged us in (including me, even though I was trying to pretend that I was some sort of Official Videographer — I am NOT a good dancer).

At the very end, the Woodlands group spokesperson pulled Epiphanie aside and asked her to translate for us that they had consulted among themselves and decided to give the chicken to the third, unpartnered group, since they didn’t have a partner. That group, Progress, chose a child from among themselves to be the chicken caretaker. She will distribute chicks from the chicken to other members of her group. And so, Mark and Nycki’s gift will grow.

(And, finally finally, after we got back home, Erika figured out that UUMC has enough funds to partner with another group. So, we are now partners with that third group, Twitezimbere “Progress”. I hope that I or somebody from UUMC will be able to go back in a year or two to see that chicken or her descendants.)