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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.

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.