Monthly Archives: July 2019

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.

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.)

More stories from June 25th

These are the folks we heard from that day. This is what I referred to earlier as the “tiny marketplace”, but I guess it’s really a kiosk/store they’re renting together.

Left to right: Triphonie, Francine, Marie Goreth, Margaret (Margaritte?), Japhet (not pictured: Dieu Donne, Francois)

Francine had the same life experience as her friend. (I think she was referring to Triphonie.) She is 18, with no adult parents at all (so, a total orphan) and has two siblings, aged 12 and 8.

One of the things she does is to buy beans (dried, I think) wholesale, and sells them retail in the market. With the profits from her income-generating activities, she has been able to buy a dress for herself, and it’s the first dress she ever bought for herself. She is now able to eat every day, and her siblings are back in school. Her dream is to buy a cow (my notes say “buy a moo”, but I’m pretty sure I meant cow).

Marie Goreth, in the center, was a total orphan, and isolated from the community. She has two siblings and also a nine-month-old baby (she started the program pregnant). Her IGA (income-generating activity) is to buy a plot of cassava, harvest and process it and sell it. She makes a good profit, from which she is able to feed her family and has bought a goat. She has also bought rabbits for her siblings to take care of. They will eventually sell the rabbits for school supplies.

She was sad when her siblings could not attend school, and, when they did, they were stigmatized because they were homeless (which meant they slept in the bush, on the ground) or hungry. She is now able to rent a room but she still has a struggle to make enough money. She does keep the profits from her work and has bought clothes for her siblings and her baby.

Her dreams (dreams are important) are to build her own house (this is her plan for next year) from her profit savings plus a loan (from the group, probably, so the interest from the loan will be counted as group income).

On house-building: The houses the kids build, for themselves and for each other, are pretty simple. They make their own bricks out of mud and straw (I saw several piles of these bricks as we drove down the road — they’re about the size of cinderblocks), make walls of the bricks and cover them them with more mud (or adobe?). The roofs are corrugated “iron” that Zoe supplies. There might be a translation problem here; I’m pretty sure they’re galvanized steel (or maybe iron, who knows?) that they use the word “iron” for. Zoe also supplies doors and windows. Here is a new-built example, the house Salomoni’s group built for him when he re-joined the group:

After Marie Goreth spoke, Margaritte spoke. Her story made such an impact on all of us that I blogged it that day, here.

Then, Japhet spoke. He is 20 years old and has a 12-year-old brother. His biggest challenge is that he is currently homeless. He had a house (I guess inherited from his parents), but the roof collapsed. Now he lives with a neighbor and works one day per week to pay the rent. He has received seeds from Zoe (I guess for his kitchen garden) and a small grant for his business. His business is that he buys cabbage wholesale and sells them retail, for a small profit. (I think it’s kind of neat that the Zoe kids don’t all do the same thing, so they don’t flood the market with one thing. I’m guessing that’s part of their small-business training: market research and planing.) He also planted cabbage in March, and, as of June 25th, was planning to harvest and sell them, also. He is now able to buy soap (the hygiene and sanitation thing, again) and food for his family (which I guess is himself and his brother). He plans to add cassava flour to his inventory. He has rented a plot of land to plant cassava (to sell) and sweet potatoes to eat.

Next, Dieu Donne. He is 20 and has two siblings. He makes charcoal. Before he joined the working group, he was hopeless, and he complained to God (in an accusatory way). However, after he joined the working group and started to see some results, he confessed to God and apologized for his earlier complaints.

He told us the story of a character named Rachel. (I think it was just a didactic story, not based on actual fact.) Rachel had many problems and wasn’t very smart. She decided she would make charcoal to sell. However, she had neither skill nor knowledge, and, when she burned her wood to make charcoal, she just wound up with ashes. The lesson Dieu Donne takes from this story is: be smart. Make a plan and have some knowledge. So, now he knows how to make charcoal and he is making a profit. With his Zoe grant, he has bought some trees, cut them and made charcoal from them. (Charcoal is an important energy source for cooking.) He started with one sack, about four feet tall. Now he is able to make four to five sacks (in a week? my notes are unclear). He knows his area (his market) and can sell well. He emphasizes this “trick”: know your market. (I’m sure this will sound familiar to some readers.) The fact that he has learned the importance of hygiene helps him stay healthy and smart-looking, which means he has better luck selling. (Honestly, I bet these kids would do just fine if they found themselves in this country.) In addition to his charcoal business, he also breeds goats and chickens.

His dream is to own his own house. He is currently renting, on terms similar to what the other kids have already described.

And, finally, Francois. Francois is 20 years old, and has two siblings, aged 17 and 15. With his Zoe grant, he buys and sells chickens (again, wholesale to retail). From ten chickens, he can make 10-20,000 Rwandan francs in profit, but he usually sells five to seven chicken (in a week, presumably). Before Zoe, he was hungry and sick, and he could not afford medical treatment. He had no home and he slept outside (as in: on the ground and maybe in the bush). He dropped out of school. When he exchanged labor for food, he was exploited (which, for boys, means being egregiously underpaid from what was negotiated, for example, by a factor of five).

Now that he’s been with the Zoe working group (for six months), he no longer goes more than a day without eating. He is now able to rent a room. For him, his Zoe working group represents a big family, and he feels inexpressible joy and thankfulness.

After we heard from these kids, we bought a little of what each was selling. Vegetables, mangos, cassava flour, charcoal and a live chicken.

What did we do with all that, you might well ask. The charcoal went to the seamstresses at a workshop we had visited, for them to heat the irons they use for the clothes they make. The chicken was gifted to a working group that didn’t have a partner (at least, they didn’t have a partner at the time; since then, UUMC has partnered with them; it’s the Twitezimbere Progress group).

And the food went to the hotel kitchen for them to prepare for us. (It lowers their costs, since they can feed us with free food.) I must say: fresh mango professionally prepared is delicious.

A thought on the repetiveness of the Zoe stories we hear

So, as I type up all these stories, I find myself feeling a little apologetic that they’re so repetitive. I hear people’s voices in my head: “Oh, it’s yet ANOTHER sob story; jeez, they’re all the same, *groan*.”

Well… Yes, there is a certain sameness to the stories. Seems like that, in itself, should say something. So many people all experiencing the same stuff.

But also: why do the program coordinators insist on having us hear from each family when the stories are so similar? Because… if you waited a year to present your story, would you want to be shunted aside just because your story was like everybody else’s? Imagine how worthless that would make you feel.

The mission is to build people up. Everybody has a story to tell. We listen to them all, and we give them all the honor they deserve. The last story deserves the same honor as the first.

We suburban folk here all have the same stories, ourselves. Kids in sports, so many activities, parents driving them all around, issues at work with management and co-workers, ambitious plans we have, the hopes we have for our kids, elder care, health problems. SOOO monotonous.

But wait, you say. We’re all unique.

Aha. My point.

So, I take notes and type them all up. Who knows, maybe something somebody says strikes a unique chord.

There’s also another aspect: accountability. That’s part of what we provide (both for each other and for the kids). We care enough to hold them accountable, and they give us an accounting when we arrive. Suppose we arrived, looked, and said “eh, you’re good; no need to tell us your story.” Also not good.

On kitchen gardens

On June 25th, we visited a group that was planting kitchen gardens for each other. The “kitchen garden” is something each family plants (or gets help from the group planting) very early in the program, so for us to see it means that we were visiting a very “young” group.

(It’s been my experience on both of my Zoe trips so far that we visit third-year groups (and maybe graduates) early in the trip, and we visit first-year groups late in the trip. I think this is for a couple of reasons: (1) It’s a gentle introduction for us. Visits to first-year groups seem to be the hardest to take, emotionally, because of the stories we hear and the poverty we see. But, maybe more importantly, (2) it makes it easier for us to encourage the first-year groups because we have fresh memories of what third-year groups are capable of.)

At any rate, this kitchen garden thing is interesting enough to merit its very own blog post. The purpose of it is to get the family to start growing food to eat as soon as possible. (Maybe there’s another purpose, too, like encouraging planning for the future and investing effort now for the future, but I don’t know, maybe that’s just me reaching too far for meaning.) As it happens, planting a kitchen garden turns out to be an activity the entire group takes part in, so it’s also kind of a team-building exercise.

When I heard “kitchen garden”, I imagined a square little garden, with rows neatly hoed and plantings of whatever: beans, tomatoes, squash, corn, some herbs.

It turns out it’s a ziggurat of earth, not a square little plot. It looks like this:


So, that’s a non-trivial amount of dirt. These gardens are built in consultation with a government horticulturalist [who is a volunteer]. I think one of the things to remember is that Rwanda (and Kenya) have wet and dry seasons, and I’m willing to bet that the wet season comes with a fair number of gully-washing downpours, and the dry season gets pretty dry. Here’s a table showing the amount of precipitation (in inches) every month in Kigali, along with the number of days of rain:

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
inches3 3.5 4.5 6.1 3.5 0.8 0.4 1.2 2.8 4.1 4.5 3 37.4
days11 11 15 18 13 2 1 4 10 17 17 14 133

By contrast, in North Carolina, we get between 3 and 4 inches of precipitation every month of the year and somewhere between 9-10 days of rain each month (almost 12 days in July and 7-8 days each month in the fall). (Sources: Raleigh, Rwanda.) So, you want something that won’t wash away in a downpour or dry out when there’s no rain. I think this’ll do.

Also, they put manure and compost in the central hole (I think there’s kind of a wedge cutout in the back that I didn’t see that allows easier access to the center of the garden) and water from there (with a gardening can), so the nutrients diffuse throughout the garden without washing away.

The seedlings they’re planting were grown by them from seed.

A working group can split up and plant two of these gardens in a day, so a 30-family working group can plant kitchen gardens for each of its members in two weeks. I think what we’re seeing here in this picture is just some heads of families; their younger siblings are probably in school (from the stories they tell, getting their siblings back into school is kind of a point of pride).

The vegetables they plant in these gardens are: beets, cabbage, green peppers, onions, carrots (from seed), and amaranth (which has leaves like spinach).

One final note: when I was at the Genocide Museum in Kigali, I wandered into the meditation garden there, and it had structures similar in shape and size (but with concrete borders). It was pretty peaceful, but, sadly, I had no time to meditate.

Sept. 1, 2019: So, I have some errata/addenda:

(1) The government agronomist helper is a volunteer, and only helps with the first garden for the group.

(2) The schedule for the groups working on the kitchen gardens is they tend to their individual family businesses in the morning and work on the gardens in the afternoon.

More stories from the last group we visited (on 6/25)

This day, we visited three first-year groups simultaneously. They’re in the practice of all meeting at the same time at the same place (in a pentecostal church, which made a fine meeting place; I didn’t get the denomination but I guess it doesn’t really matter). Two of the groups are partnered with Woodlands UMC (Texas) and the third group does not (yet) have a partner.

(A note on “partnering” as opposed to “sponsoring”, since it’s an easy mistake to make: There is a two-way relationship between a church (or other organization) and a Zoe working group. It’s not a matter of the church “giving” something to the group because that’s the kind of patrician relationship the empowerment model is trying to avoid. Instead, both the church and the working group exist in relationship — the church helps with micro-funding, and the group uses that funding as a leg up. Hopefully, at some point, members of the church visit the group to offer them encouragement and support and are guests of the group. (The visits we had in Kenya involved the 2nd- and 3rd-year groups feeding us lunch and visits in Rwanda usually resulted in us receiving gifts, so we really were guests.)

Another important way that church and group partner is that they pray for each other. We each need prayer.)

The groups we visited were in an area of Rwanda that was less developed than usual. As we drove past people’s houses or places of business, we saw cassava root set out to dry and sorghum blossoms also set out to dry, both usually on tarps on the ground or (in the case of cassava root) on racks made from sapling trunks, almost like the wooden supports for grapevines we might be used to seeing in this country. The cassava root gets sold or ground into flour (which may also get sold). The dark-red sorghum blossoms are used to make bread (after grinding in flour) or porridge or a soft drink or beer (low-alcohol) or sold for money.

Our first stop was the kitchen garden mentioned in its own post. After that, we drove to a tiny marketplace/storefront occupied by five (I think) of the group members, and we heard their stories.

Triphonie: Before Zoe, Triphonie had had to beg for food for her siblings. She once went for eight days without food because every time she begged, men she begged had asked her to sleep with them, and she wouldn’t do that. She was very proud to report that, starting in April, she has been able to pay for food and is now free from exploitation. She has used the profits from her income-generating activity to buy a goat, and she has also planted a crop of cassava root which she expects to harvest in a year. She has rented the land for the cassava root for two years. (I found that surprisingly long-term planning. I’m pretty sure she would have passed the marshmallow test with flying colors.)

Her dream is to build her own house. She currently rents a single room, and, until recently (this month?) she paid her rent by working one day per week for the landlord/lady. She expects this month to begin paying rent with money, 2800 RWF ($3) per month.

(Sadly, that is all I have time for tonight. I’ll have to continue with more stories tomorrow or the next day.)