Day Two: Saw our (UUMC’s) Imbaraga Power group

Two days ago, Saturday (June 22nd), we visited with the group UUMC partners with, Imbaraga Power, in the Cyumba sector of the Gicumbi district. It was quite an affair.

Each member of the group (each family, that is) has by now demonstrated that they are motivated and willing to improve their situations, and have received some basics such as mosquito netting.

This “demonstrate their willingness” sounds harsh, but there have been problems in the past when relief organizations simply hand out mosquito netting to people who need them. Some of the people simply sold the netting. Others used them as fishing nets, and still others used them as a canopy to protect chicks from hawks. And of course, after that, some of them got malaria. So a better approach is to train them in hygiene and sanitation and see that they take concrete steps to improve, after some education. Then, they get the nets, and they know how to use them and how important they are. (Speaking of which, housekeeping has just come by to “refresh the room”, meaning, close the glass door and the curtains to the balcony to keep the mosquitos out. I, of course, am still sitting out on the balcony typing, because I am a crazy mzungu, a white person. Maybe I don’t deserve mosquito netting.)

(The same issue as above also applies to Bibles simply handed out. The pages get used as rolling papers. So, instead, Zoe children must buy Bibles, if they want them. Because they spend their own hard-earned (literally) money on them, they value them more.)

AT ANY RATE… the next step for the kids is to plant a small “kitchen garden” crop, which they all have done, using seed given to them by Zoe, frequently on rented land. (The initial seeds and land rent are fronted by Zoe in the form of a small grant.) They decide which crops to plant after receiving advice from a government horticulturist on which crops are appropriate and how to plant them.

These crops mature in a few months and supply sufficient food to nourish their families and have some surplus which they can sell. Half of the surplus goes into a group “table bank” or community bank, which both saves money for future group activities and makes funds available to group members for micro-loans used to undertake more income-generating activities. The dividends from the community bank are shared with the group members every six months.

While the crops mature, they also start another income-generating activity, which might be something like acquiring sandals at wholesale prices and reselling them at retail prices. Or starting a kiosk that sells sundries such as cassava flour, soap, seasoning spice packets, etc.

At the market stalls

We went to the stalls where they sell their wares, and took some pictures, which I have to upload later, when the wifi is better. We were there a few hours before the market normally opens, but they had gone ahead of us and gotten set up so they could show us what it looks like. They sell skirts, kids’ sandals (cheap, plastic ones, which they get at wholesale prices), produce and sundries such as amaranth leaves, salt, and cassava flour, and reusable shopping bags which they have woven from colored plastic strips. We bought several of those last ones because our favorite trendy cooperative grocery store (AND our CSA) do not offer plastic bags to carry groceries home in. (Plastic bags are also banned in Rwanda, by the way. [Alsø alsø, by the way, there is no litter in Rwanda. It’s pretty amazing.]) So, now we have a conversation piece about Zoe when we go shopping.

Other members of our group also bought vegetables from the kids. It’s possible to take these back to the hotel and get them to prepare them for us. A few days later, one of us (Josh, I think) suggested we buy cassava flour to try, and we did. Most people think it smells terrible and tastes about the same, but I actually didn’t mind it. It was prepared by simply mixing with hot water (or maybe boiling — I didn’t see), and it’s traditionally served with steamed amaranth leaves, which is kind of like spinach. (We had some of that, too.) Taken together, I think it’s actually pretty good.

For the curious, here’s the lowdown on cassava: Quote: «It can provide more calories per acre of the crop than other cereals, which makes it a very useful crop in the developing world.»

We heard from several of the family heads in the group while we were at the market stalls:

Claudine (19, with two siblings) wants to buy (not rent) land for growing potatoes and beans (dried, probably).

Jean Nepo (20 years old, with two siblings):

  • Sells rides on his bicycle (so it’s a bicycle taxi — we’ve seen several of those; they have very nice padded seats for one or two passengers and footrests for the passengers so they don’t have to hold their feet off the road and away from the chain for the duration of the ride);
  • Makes money every day to provide for his family;
  • Uses the group fund to pay student fees and for health insurance for his siblings;
  • Has invested in farming beans and sorghum on rented land;
  • Hires neighbors to harvest his crops because he’s so busy with his bicycle taxi business.

All of this in his first year.

(Health insurance is $3 per year per person in Rwanda, so it’s pretty close to “socialized medicine” as we used to call it, or a super-cheap “government option” as we might call it today.)

Before they join a Zoe working group, orphaned heads of families are frequently unable to pay school fees for their younger siblings, or buy the materials needed for school, so their siblings drop out of school. Obviously not good for them or for the communities in which they live. Likewise, if anybody gets sick and has no money, they usually will receive no healthcare, unless they have insurance.

(Note: in the following micro-accounts, the numbers of siblings may be off. I think there may sometimes be off-by-one confusions in sibling counts. For instance, I have one sibling, but there are two siblings in my (childhood) family.)

Jonathan has planted potatoes on a rented plot of land. He expects to harvest them in August.

Jean Claude is 17 years old and has two siblings. He has bought a goat as an investment.

Yvette is 19 and has two siblings. She makes the shopping bags we bought. She has been able to buy a sheep, which has given birth to two lambs.

Denyse (17 years old) sells sweet potatoes. She is able to buy food for her family and put away some savings in the group fund. She expects to buy a sewing machine at the end of July. Since she already knows how to sew, having worked as a seamstress earlier, Zoe will match her funds to help her buy the sewing machine.

Note that Zoe emphasizes to each orphan that they should not eat all their profits. They must save at least a little bit from their profits, whenever they realize them.

Denyse (19 years old; we have several Denyses) lives with her grandmother. (As I may have mentioned earlier, sometimes these children will live with a grandparent or a disable parent.) She sells skirts. From her profits and savings, she has been able to buy a sheep for her grandmother, which has just given birth to two lambs. This gives her grandmother something to do (taking care of the lambs).

Denyse (21 years old) has two siblings. She sells cassava flour (cassava is a starchy root which gets dried and ground up), corn flour, potatoes, salt, and soap. She wants to add fish (a tiny anchovy-like fish from one of the nearby lakes) and peanut sauce to her inventory. She has also planted potatoes on rented land, and expects to harvest them this August.

Anet (19, with three siblings) has set up in a kiosk owned by a church, and strategically located between the church and a nearby school. She received a goat from Zoe, which then had kids. She kept the kids and sold the mother, and she expects her little flock to expand. She only eats a little of her profits, as she puts it. She says she was dying of hunger (this is not the hyperbole we normally use in this country) and now she is a successful businesswoman.

At the group meeting

The entire group greeted us with dancing and synchronized clapping and a song which translates as, “Come in, you are blessed. Sit down, and be welcome.” (I think I got parts of it on video, but there’s no way it’ll get uploaded over this hotel wifi, so that may have to wait until I get home.)

Yvette led a prayer, and then we introduced ourselves. They thanked us, and then there was lots more joyous dancing, to show how happy they were that God had answered their prayers.

Then the chairperson, Beatrice, spoke, introducing her own staff. (I’ll copy and paste from Erika’s notes from this point on.)

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. [The U.N. uses the term “orphans and vulnerable children” (OVCs) to encompass total orphans and children living with an adult who may be too ill to really help. — John.]  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 29:11 scripture.  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. [I think this is a health issue, having to do with pests in the soil. — John.] 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 make me have sex for money because 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. [This really blew me away. — John.]

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 watches 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. [More amazingness. — John.] 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 (along with some greens for the bunnies to munch on).  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.

One of our other group members, Kelly (from Bayside Church, near Sacramento, California), blessed us all with a beautiful prayer and the meeting broke up.

As we were leaving the room, 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 of the kids came up to see.  It was fascinating to watch. (John was also able to show some of them the blog page with the picture of the group on his phone at the market, earlier, but the paper picture was a little bigger and worked without internet.)

We then moved outside for a group photo.  Afterwards we headed back to the hotel for showers, dinner, and a group meeting.  It was a long day.

[The next time I blog a Zoe trip, I’m just going to slap out a half-baked blog entry every day instead of reaching for completeness.]