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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.)

Finally, the view from the Villa Portofino balcony

I never was able to really upload and re-download (ai, the intricacies of using WordPress on an Android tablet) the picture I took off the hotel balcony in Kigali, but, now that I’m home, here it is. It turns out the festivities were for the Kenyan ambassador, and the party went thumpa-thumpa into the night. They shut down around 2:00 a.m.


(Looks like WordPress doesn’t make this a zoomable picture, so here’s a link to the same picture in a Google Photos album:

Visited a first-year group today & here’s one story

Today we visited a group that was six months in to their first year, and they are still on the hardest part (I think) of their path.

One story we heard was from a child whose name I didn’t quite catch, but I think it was Margaritte (or Margaret) it sounded something like “Makilette” or maybe Immaculee, from the Urumuri group (sometimes, conditions for speaking are suboptimal, and sometimes accents interfere).

She is 20 years old and has three siblings. She lives in a very poor area, even relative to the rest of Rwanda. (Imagine Appalachia but worse.) During her relating of her story, she suddenly started crying, and stopped and turned her back to us. We had seen some sad children, but she was the saddest. We reached out to her, and one of our group wrapped her arms around her and let her sob into her chest for a bit.

Her parents died when she was ten, and her little brother was four. Her entry on the data sheet we have lists two other brothers presently aged two and four. These listings can be a little fluid, but if it’s right, we need to do a little math and read between the lines. There is a tremendous amount of exploitation of these children, sometimes in terms of simply underpaying them (by a factor of five, we heard, in one case), and sometimes in terms of demanding sex for food. (One of the other children we spoke to, Charlotte, became pregnant and had a baby that way, who we got to meet.)

So, she literally had to carry her siblings on her back. At ten, she was too young and weak to work and too weak, in another sense, to strike bargains for, say, work in exchange for food. She tried to “feed” her siblings water, because they were hungry and she had no food, but it didn’t work.

The roof of her parents house collapsed during the rainy season, so the house became uninhabitable. (By the way, we had a pretty serious thunderstorm last night during the dry season, and it was a real gully washer. Loudest rain I’ve ever heard.) When she rented a house (in exchange for labor, the usual rate being a day of labor per week, as I understand it), its roof also leaked. And she had a skin disease, due to poor hygiene.

But, she joined a Zoe group. She learned the basics about hygiene, sanitation, and nutrition. (We take the education we get in school about these topics, and what we learn from our parents for granted. Take those two sources of info away, put yourself in a severely poverty-stricken area, and guess what the result is.) She also learned how to start a small business, and identify a good business plan. She has received a goat from Zoe, from which she can get milk and which will also have kids.

Even now, though, she is still struggling. She still doesn’t have a safe home, and her siblings are still not in school (there are costs, such as uniforms and other materials required to be in school).

However, she and her family are able to eat at least once a day. And, due to her knowledge of hygiene and efforts to keep herself clean, her skin disease has cleared up and she looks clean. (Several of the children we listened to noted how clean and sharp they now look, having learned the importance of hygiene.)

She does have hope. It seems trite to say hope is important, but it is. I can only trust you, dear reader, to know that.

She has a dream of owning her own house, and she is working toward that. (Understand that the houses here are adobie-and-mud-brick structures with two or three rooms and an outhouse. This is what Seliman’s group built for him, when they brought him back after he’d run away.)

I’ll have to tell the rest of the story of our visit with this group over the next few days (it was pretty powerful), but there’s one more thing: as we were driving away, Epihany expressed concern that the groups in this area would be able to succeed. There are so few opportunities here for small businesses, and one of the girls we met is deaf (untreated illnesses can do that). There is nothing for a deaf child in the hinterlands of a poor district.

Epiphany’s concern worries me, but I know this: she and the other Zoe social workers are working these problems. More importantly, I know how powerful these kids can be. I saw a one-legged child and a child with a deformed hand play volleyball (with a few teammates from their group). I have seen their accomplishments and the confidence of the leadership of two- and three-year groups, and I don’t believe this confidence is easily attained or easily destroyed.

I also know the power of prayer. That is something we can do from afar, in addition to supporting Zoe’s efforts.

6/24, South Province workshops and Ingenzi group

On the 24th of June, we travelled to the South Province.

Once again, I will shamelessly steal Erika’s notes, since they’re so much more thorough than mine. [I’ll put additions in square brackets.]

[Business Visits]

The group 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 [fairly large] government complex where many groups and Zoe 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.  

  • Esperanza is a tailor. [She completed her vocational training in January. She makes dresses, shirts, skirts, cloth shopping bags, and placemats. Rwanda has banned plastic bags for most purposes, including use by retail merchants. Our hotel rooms had plastic bags in the wastebaskets, so, obviously, there are exceptions. “No plastic bags” means there’s a great market for cloth shopping bags, and also is probably part of the reason why Rwanda is so amazingly litter-free.]  Her business 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. [(There is a drive by the government in Rwanda to have more things be made in Rwanda. At least partly for this reason, import of second-hand clothes is prohibited. This results in an opportunity for Zoe kids to make more clothes.) Esperanza gave thanks to God and the government (which supports Zoe) and Tarrytown UMC, and said her group expects to see the entire Tarrytown congregation on the next trip.]
  • 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.

They also had a knitting project working on school uniforms to fulfill a contract they had entered into.

The group split up and Celine, one of the Program Officers, took Corinne, John, Sandra, Rachel [there were two Rachels on this trip — one was our trip leader and the other was the 15-year-old daughter of Sandra, from Cary] and I to visit members of the Ingenzi working group at their businesses in Musha in the Gisagara district.  

Francoise is 21 and has three siblings (15, 10 & 8).  Her first IGA [income-generating activity] 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 two siblings, aged 10 and 9.  [His father left the family when he was seven, and he now lives with his mother.] 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. [He currently owns one bicycle for transporting what he sells. Depending on which market he sells at, the distance he travels to market is either one kilometer or ten.]  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 is 19 and has two other siblings.] 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 sells to hotels in Huye (Butare).]  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. [He has also been able to buy medical insurance.]  His dream is to get a motorbike so that he can carry his hens further [Huye is a 30-minute walk and a five-minute ride] 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 [to be cooked]. Everyone except John vetoed that idea [hey, fresh chicken! — John.]. She then suggested that we ask Damascene to bring it to the group meeting and that we present it to the group to take care of for us.  

We also stopped in to say hi to Jean Domecene from the Unity group [which is partnered with a single person, Barbara P.], also in its 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.  Laurent was able to attend school supported by a community member and he took vet school classes. [He finished school, but his mother is extremely poor, so he returned home to help care for her and his sister.]  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 a 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.  

[Group Meeting]

We hopped back in the trucks to drive around to the Ingenzi 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. [One group member had an illness that required special treatment.]  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 [the shoemaker] 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 dreams to have a large shoe factory so that he can [train and] give jobs to other children.   

Each group we visited had its own special clap/cheer.  Ingenzi gave “flowers” by waving their hands.  

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 [that made a big impression on them] and is so inspired by them.  We then presented the chicken to the group, who decided Pascal [a different Pascal than the one I wrote about for our 6/25 first-year group visit] 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 group 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. [John: turns out this little cafe had a pretty serious coffee-roasting machine. And the cappuccino they made was absolutely world-class. We sat out front at little tables and had cappuccino and conversation. I will always remember that fondly.]

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!


  • The majority of parents died of AIDS, but malaria and other diseases also. [Some of them have simply been abandoned by their parents. Rwanda still has a fairly high fertility rate and the economy is still challenging, I gather. When one parent has abandoned a family, it only takes the death of one parent to make the children orphans.]
  • Citizens of Rwanda 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.

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.

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.]

A powerful story from today’s group (the lost child)

A very quick note I want to get out in the 15 minutes between arriving at tonight’s hotel and leaving for supper.

The group we visited today was sponsored by Hendersonville (First?) UMC. We heard the story of one of the boys in the group, Seliman. His mother was a single woman with mental problems. He never met his dad. His mom led kind of a nomadic life, so he was probably never able to put down roots or form friendships, and it affected his own thinking and behavior. Eventually, she died, and he became a homeless orphan. He had no house or toilet, and was living in the bush, basically.

As the early activity of each child drawing a picture representing their dream, and learning about hygiene, he was impatient and decided that a picture of a dream and mosquito netting wouldn’t feed him. I think it was overwhelming for him, to be faced with the prospect of being in one place for three years and working for food instead of begging and stealing; the change was too much. It’s not that his character was flawed and he wanted to continue in the way he had been, but he just wasn’t able to make the transition, apparently. This happens with Zoe kids sometimes; they leave the program. He bolted, and went back to his old life.

One of the other kids in his group, Charlotte, ran across him in the city, and (apparently), all the Zoe kids convinced him to come back. They built him a house, using materials donated by Zoe. They built him a toilet. Because they already knew the value of the program, and they knew enough about him to know that he really did want to be a member, but just wasn’t quite able to clear the first hurdle. And that first hurdle does take a personal commitment. You need to be ready for change, I think, because Zoe is such a new thing in these kids’ lives. And they knew.

So, they went and brought him back. And now he tells this story himself. This is the sort of community we make possible.