Day Three, 6/23, Icyerekezo Group, partnered with First UMC of Hendersonville NC

Erika’s notes on this day, since I seem to have taken none [with additions John makes in square brackets]:

Because the NC group 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, to visit the Icyerekezo Group.  This group is partnered with Erika’s parents’ church, First UMC Hendersonville.  

First we stopped at Charlotte’s house. [It’s a little bit unusual to stop by a single group member’s house because that visit can elevate that group member above the rest and cause resentment, but Epiphanie told us that it was ok in that particular area because they’re more easy-going about that sort of thing. The house is really more like an apartment in a larger collection of small adobe buildings arranged around a courtyard. The place where it was looked kind of like this:


Charlotte’s apartment was the one immediately to the left of the entrance. The courtyard and entrance were open, with the entrance being sort of a doorway/gateway into the courtyard. This structure originally belonged to her family or to her grandfather. I never got a look into the kitchen (or any of the other structures) but I heard other members of the group who did describe it as “rough”. There was a very smoky smell when they opened the door, and I was reminded of a story I read a while ago stating that smoke from indoor cooking is a major health hazard around the world. We saw plenty of houses with old tile roofs and no chimneys and smoke simply seeping up between the tiles.] 

Charlotte is 20 and is responsible for her grandfather [who has some unnamed debilitating illness], 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 very 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 the group because they come together to help anyone who needs help.  They all work together at each others’ farms.

Charlotte grows ground nuts [what we call “peanuts” here].  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 300-400 francs, but 1kg of ground nuts sells for 1,500 francs. [The exchange rate, in case we haven’t mentioned it already is approximately 1,000:1 francs:dollars, so that’s about $1.50.]

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, and had 30 after six 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. [We got to see the cow, a heifer, which she keeps in a neat, tiny stable (I use the word loosely) in one corner of the courtyard where she lives. There wasn’t much manure because the manure itself is a valuable fertilizer for crops.] 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. [She is justifiably proud of the electricity. We saw a brand-new meter box on the outside wall of her house and single, bare LED bulb in her sitting room.]

[By the way, the kids we see are very much about the value-add (have I mentioned this?). They buy something, add value to it, and then sell it for a profit. Wholesale to retail. (Many of them actually dream of becoming wholesalers instead of retailers, moving up the supply chain. They know what’s what.) What I call “bean arbitrage”: buy dried beans cheap when they’re in season, store them, and sell them at higher prices when they’re not in season. Whole cassava roots which they then grind into flour and sell at a profit. And Charlotte’s basket-decorating business.]

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. [This is the story I told in my “Lost Child” post.] Salimani left the group early, but they kept looking for him 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 very happy [and proud].  

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 Group, members from another group and some 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 for the group, told us a bit about the group. 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 child lost one leg above the knee. All six sat 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. [We saw some very serious spiking and defense. These kids were definitely playing for real.] 

After the game Leo Pierre, who is the Chairman of the group, told us his story.  Leo Pierre 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 [and they are proud of that].  (From level 1 to level 2/3.)  [As I understand from Epiphanie’s description, in Rwanda, level one is basically “extreme poverty and unable to feed oneself, requiring government support”, while levels two and three are basically some variant of “poor but self-sufficient” with maybe some measure of ability to be part of the (manual?) labor force.]

Epiphany said we had time for a couple of stories.  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 the group through the dream process, Salimani said, “How can I eat dreams?” and he quit the group.  He went back to living on the streets, but the group wanted him back. When Charlotte found him 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 group that presents traditional dances with singing and drumming.  We then 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 group meeting and turned in for the night.