Monthly Archives: August 2012

Cows R Us

Rwandans love cows. They have songs about cows, they have dances, their whole culture is based on the love of the cow.

The beautiful umushagiriro (cow dance) — I guess those are their horns.

And Rwandans are infinitely patient and gentle with their cows — even when they are being kind of .. pushy.

This Heifer heifer walked right into the ceremony, butted the speaker, went for the drinks & nobody batted an eye.

Kirehe, Eastern Province

So it makes sense that the Rwandan government would partner with Heifer, an organization named after its favorite animal, to help 6,382 families in the poor rural district of Kirehe earn a living, improve their land, and feed themselves. It’s part of the government’s national initiative called A Cow for Every Poor Family — that remarkably (well, not really) is based on Heifer‘s beautiful training/giving/passing on model.

Why a cow? I asked Kirehe veterinarian Dr. Jean de Dieu Niyitanga that question and he had this succinct answer, “Cows mean milk and money.” Then he waxed poetic and scientific about what cows need to thrive. For someone like me who thinks a cat requires far too much attention, raising a cow sounds like an inconceivable amount of work. So I asked him to elaborate.

“First you have to love your cow, because if you love your animal, you’ll treat it well, feed it well, and keep it clean and healthy.” Okay, but what does that exactly mean?

The cows Heifer gives to poor farmers in Rwanda are pure breeds, either Jersey cows (brown) or Friesians (black & white). They produce a lot of milk (up to 30 liters a day) but they also demand a lot of food– about 1/10th of their weight in food a day in grass, cereals and legumes that the farmers must grow and harvest. Cows also need a salt lick to provide calcium, potassium and sodium to replace the minerals lost when they are producing milk.

Like any nursing mother, heifers drink a lot: 50-80 liters of water a day, depending on their weight, and that also has to be carried on somebody’s head back to the home.

Cows are big, gentle animals but they require shelter from the elements. So before getting a cow, every participant has to build a shed with 6 bags of cement (@$16/bag) provided by Heifer for a concrete floor to keep the cow’s feet out of dung, wet mud, and to facilitate manure-collection. They’re also given aluminum sheets for roofing – and required to pass on the same cement & aluminum when they pass on the gift of the cow to another poor farmer.

Veneranda Mukagakwandi & her cow & her cow sheds.

Alfred’s son digging the fields.

Then there’s the issue of keeping the cow clean: the shed needs to be shoveled out at least once a day, and the animal washed with soap and water twice a week (more water to carry). Cows must also be sprayed to protect against flies and ticks that can give them theileriosis, a tickborne disease that can kill them if left untreated. And the heifers are always watched closely for mastitis – or they can permanently lose use of a teat.

My brain was whirling with the possibilities for bovine disaster, but to Rwandans a cow simply means milk, money and manure. One cow will produce 3 tons of manure a year – and that is hugely important to the farmers planting their crops in the over-cultivated, poorly producing soil in Kirehe. Farmers report a 75-100% increase in ag productivity with the addition of cow dung– and that’s no small potatoes.

So, how has a cow specifically changed the life of somebody like Alfred Nsengimana? After Alfred had a home visit and was designated as able to raise a cow, (if you don’t have enough land or strength to take care of a cow, you’ll first be given goats or pigs), he built his shed and received the 182 hours of training that Heifer gives all participants – to make sure they know how to breed, lead, raise and take care of the animal.

After those six months of training, Alfred received a pregnant Friesian heifer, it gave birth to a female that he’s passed on to a neighbor, and now Alfred is earning $50/month from the cow’s milk – in a country where 60% of the population earns under $1/day. With that milk money (I love this entrepreneurial spirit so much!) he bought more goats and rabbits that are easier to raise and quicker to sell than cows, if the family needs money for school fees or health emergencies.

Then, Alfred dug a cistern in his back yard and he is also harvesting rainwater from the roof –so his family can make fewer trips to the town well to carry water back on their heads.

Water harvesting with a plastic-lined tank — how clever!

With milk to drink, meat to eat, and money in the bank, Alfred & his wife put a new cement floor & walls in their house—a real luxury. He would like to keep at least two cows, because then he’ll have enough manure to qualify for a bio-gas unit (half paid for by the government) that will mean they don’t have to collect and burn firewood and can cook in half the time.

Biogas – a giant leap for woman-kind: no collecting wood/cooks in half the time!

Alfred’s neighbor Jean de Dieu Habayarimana is 24 years old and an orphan responsible for raising his two younger brothers. He doesn’t have land to grow forage for a cow, so he received the gift of 2 pigs from Heifer last December and proved himself so good at raising them, he was given the stud pig for the community – which means that he’ll get 1 piglet from every brood his pig sires.

If you’ve got no land for a cow, take the pig!

This Kirehe Project is a massive undertaking, requiring a daunting amount of work from Heifer (home-visiting every prospective family and giving 182 hours of training to each beneficiary), the government, and all the local organizations across five pilot zones in 12 sectors of the Eastern Province. But 1,000 heifers have been already given in 2011 (and 360 passed along), with 1,145 more to be given this year (plus 2,000 South African Boer goats and 562 purebred pigs). That means that families like Alfred’s will be given the chance to take this opportunity and leverage it to feed their families, earn a living, double their agricultural productivity, and climb out of poverty.

The real beneficiaries of Kirehe’s big project.

Makes me feel like hollering Oyee! Amata Iwau Kuruhimbi, which means something like Let us always have milk in our homes!

Yes indeedy.

Categories: Africa, Animals, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

“Stop making me cry.”

One of my best friends just wrote me that imploring comment about my recent posts on Rwanda. So I figured it was time to break out the upbeat posts for a while, and let you know you can (temporarily)  retire your hankies and wallow in my Pollyanna side.

Actually, there’s a lot to love and celebrate about Rwanda. First and foremost, the people. Almost everywhere you go, little children tear out of their homes, race to your car with arms furiously waving hello, and try out their best English: “Good morning, Muzungu!” (Muzungu means “white person” and as a pasty suburban American, I can tell you it’s pretty intoxicating to finally be considered exotic).

Traveling with my 21-year old daughter Lulu was a total bonus – not only because I got to enjoy her company (and she actually seemed to want to be with me), but because seeing the country through her eyes gave me a totally different perspective. For instance, she was really struck both by how hard the people work (Africans as a whole are industrious beyond belief…

…and how deeply inter-connected the people seem to be (which makes the 1994 genocide even more difficult to understand).

In Rwanda, nobody walks alone. When people are at the water pump filling their 20-liter containers with water for the long walk home, they are laughing, talking and visiting.

When men are hauling 50 kilos of bananas on their bikes, they’ve usually got a friend or two along helping. Rwandans live so closely together (there’s tremendous density of population) and they have such big families (the average number of kids per family is six), there are always packs of kids playing and working together, older sisters tote younger kids on their backs, and families are rarely apart. Lulu loved that! (although it’s also her worst nightmare)Divorce is practically unheard of, everybody walks everywhere, and people spend the vast majority of their time outside in the year-round temperate climate. In rural areas, there are precious few cell phones or electronics and the countryside is spic-and-span. Plastic bags are banned, roadside trash in nonexistent (thanks to a mandatory country-wide cleanup the first Saturday of each month) and women vigorously sweep their dirt front yards every morning and evening.I have to say that I believe President Kagame has done a remarkable job of leading the country, preventing another war, bringing home the educated diaspora to lead the recovery after the genocide, purging the government of corruption, and trying to help the poor find a way out of poverty with a livestock program (modeled after Heifer’s!!) called “A Cow for Every Poor Family.”

Rwandans working their plots in a rice field project created by the government.

I know there is a lot of controversy over Kagame’s authoritarian control, and I’m no expert on African politics, but from what I saw there were a lot of progressive things happening. And less political rancor and toxic discourse than… ummm, here.

Hope was in the air and people seemed really grateful for the things they had….like each other.

Veneranda Mukagakwandi with 4 of her 8 children (plus some cousins).

So there’s my post– and not a tear-jerking moment in sight!

Woman performing the umushagiriro, or cow dance.

Stay tuned for the next post about shiny, happy heifers (not pictured below).

(Sorry, Lulu, I know I promised not to do this…)

Categories: Africa, Children, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Rwanda, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 22 Comments

Goats … an anti-viral agent.

If you’re a woman in Rwanda, you’re almost twice as likely to be infected with HIV as a man. That seems hideously unfair, particularly after rape was used as a weapon during the genocide of 1994, resulting in a huge swell in the numbers of infected women. Still, even today it is a reality.

Cluadine Uwamaiya, mother of six and HIV+ in Kibungo.

So Heifer International has teamed up with my second most favorite organization, Partners in Health, to improve the health, nutrition and income of people living with HIV/AIDS in the Eastern Province, who make up 2.5% of the population there.

Partners in Health, which grew out of Dr. Paul Farmer’s pioneering community health work in Haiti in the 1980s, is the first responder. Since 2005, PIH has been providing crucial medicine and health care to HIV patients, as well as food packages for 10 months, in order to strengthen and stabilize these weak, poor and malnourished folks and get them on the road to recovery. But after that immediate intervention, patients still needed a way to provide themselves and their families with sustainable income and food security. And that’s where goats (and Heifer) come in.

Goats are quick to reproduce (they can be bred in the first year), their milk is highly nutritious (reportedly it really helps bolster one’s white blood cells that fight off infection) and with easily available forage (old banana peels, kitchen waste and some grasses) goats will produce a lot of poop to fertilize vegetable gardens that the people are encouraged and trained to plant. So Heifer has given away hundreds of South African dairy goats to people like Charlotte, who has used that gift to transform her life.

Charlotte found out she was HIV+ in 2003, after she had four heartbreaking miscarriages in a row and went in for a test. But her husband, from whom she got the infection, argued that she was not infected and so she got thinner and sicker until 2005, when she visited PIH (or Inshuti Mu Buzima as it’s known in Kinyarwanda) and was put on life-saving medications. In 2009,  Charlotte received a goat from Heifer, passed on its first female offspring to another family, and now has two more female offspring that provide her with so much milk, she has plenty to sell.

Nobody in Rwanda would ever drink goat milk before .. but they love it now!

With her goat milk income, Charlotte bought a pig that is now pregnant, and she can sell those piglets for about $120/each (if healthy and fat, a pig can have two litters a year of about 8-12 piglets each). Charlotte also bought a heifer and is eager to raise more goats, sell more milk, plant more vegetables and bananas, and buy more land. In a big kitchen garden that surrounds her house, she also grows carrots, beets, and maize that she sells, but she’s really famous for her excellent bananas (thanks to copious amounts of manure).  

Her 13-year old son is tall and handsome, and she’ll have the money to send him to the best secondary school –although in Rwanda it’s considered quite a tragedy to have just one child (a fact my only-child Lulu found ironic). When she talked about her four missing children, Charlotte looked bereft, but she quickly said, “I don’t think about being sick, I think about the future. It’s only when I talk about being sick that I get sad.”

Leaving Kibungo…

As we pulled away from her house, I was thinking of how Charlotte had stood up in front of the whole town meeting and told her story, and the courage that must have taken. Then I thought of the song the people were singing at the meeting (it only rhymes in Kinyarwanda, folks): “People say if you have HIV/AIDS you are going to die, but we are not prepared to die… We are going to live!”

Categories: Africa, Animals, Heifer International, Photography, Rwanda, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

What it means to give.

After seven months into my journey with Heifer, I’ve seen a lot of Passing on the Gift ceremonies. Passing on the Gift (where people who have been given an animal are required to give the first-born female of that animal to another person in need) is at the very soul of Heifer. Not only does this double any gift Heifer (and you) makes – it also, and equally importantly, turns a person who has received charity into a charitable giver. Which is a remarkable, powerful transformation.

However… when you’ve seen a POG a dozen times, you may feel like you’ve seen it all before. And on my first day in Rwanda I was jet-lagged, worried about Lulu’s 200 mosquito bites, and just kind of going through the motions – until I downloaded my photos that night in my hotel, and saw the absolute beauty of this concept reflected in each face.

What I love the most is that you can’t tell who is the giver and who is the receiver.

Passing on the gift of a cow to another person takes on even more resonance in Rwanda, since this is a cow-loving society (they have many songs dedicated to cows, and I think I heard them all) and every aspect of society is laden with the memory of the genocide of 1994, when Hutus rose up against their Tutsi neighbors and slaughtered over 800,000 men, women and children in cold blood. Trying to rebuild community on that shattered foundation of savagery takes unbelievable discipline and compassion – which, oddly, is precisely what Passing on the Gift also demands.

For a poor family to receive a huge asset like a cow and then to be required to give up its valuable first female baby is really hard– as is taking the time and effort to share what you were taught with the new family: how to build a shed for the animal, grow forage crops for it, keep it healthy and clean, milk it properly, and know when it’s ready to breed. But with the help of Heifer’s field techs, that is exactly what the people do.

Today in the Northern Province, where some of the longest-lasting fighting occurred, the POG ceremony began and ended with everyone shouting this slogan:  “Have peace!” answered by “Unite in reconciliation and uproot the genocide ideology.”

Each recipient then chose a white ticket with the number of a donated heifer, and went home with a cow that will give milk, reproduce and produce income, nutrition and assets for the family.

Waiting to choose the all-important ticket that means a new cow.

These neighbors, Tutsi and Hutu alike, will thus be bound together in friendship, responsibility and interdependence – all through the gift of a cow. And in Heifer’s Sustainable Dairy Enterprise project, this scenario is happening in 1,200 homes across the north and east Rwanda.

What the children see is giving, not division.

Town by town, and cow by cow…

Some heifers are a little easier to get home than others.

It’s such a beautiful thing to witness. I wish you could have been there –but watch this, and you’ll feel like you were!

Categories: Africa, Animals, Heifer International, Photography, Rwanda, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

A country with a past. And a future.

Rwandan boy popping in front of a genocide mass grave in Kigungo, Eastern Province.

It’s hard to know where to begin writing about Rwanda, and after a mere ten days there, terribly presumptuous. But since I’m not getting paid to do this, I’ll give it my best shot. Rwanda is a beautiful country that’s best known for the apocalypse of its genocide in 1994 and the nation is still defined by it. To survive, Rwanda has had to simultaneously remember and honor that past and move beyond it… in a country where people who murdered 800,000 of their friends and neighbors still live alongside the victims’ families and survivors.

That’s an almost inconceivable situation. On every level, you have to respect these people who have somehow managed to not only hold their country together for the past 18 years, but avoid another war and move forward.

Can you find Rwanda?

Rwanda is small (about the size of Maryland) and it’s home to a lot of people—over 11 million who have cultivated almost every square inch of it. The country is predominantly rural, with 90% of working Rwandans farming plots that average only about an acre, they have big families, and competition for land can certainly be seen as one cause of the genocide.

One bewildering fact is that, unlike many African nations, Rwandans are a unified people: they speak one language (Kinyarwanda), are from just one ethnic and linguistic group, the Banyarwanda and are overwhelmingly Christian. The country is remarkably clean (once a month they have a clean-up day — my kind of place!!), the government of President Kagame is largely free of corruption, and despite the poverty, you get a definite feeling of progress and forward momentum.

Children carrying 20-liter jerricans of water back up to their village.

The 2 million refugees who fled the genocide are mostly back home. Infant mortality rates have dropped by a third, literacy has increased to 71% of the population, and access to safe drinking water has doubled in just 3 years. The people are incredibly hard-working and industrious, yet when I asked my daughter Lulu who came with me on this trip what she thought of Rwandans, she mulled it over and replied, “They seem happy. Happier than Americans.”

Village boys thrilled with our empty plastic water bottles: a big treat for taking to school.

Despite an initial wariness that you often feel up close, it’s hard not to like people who literally run out of their homes to wave at you.

And it’s hard not to cheer for people who are working so hard to make their way back from catastrophe. Here’s hoping they keep on rising.

Categories: Africa, Farming, Photography, Rwanda, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

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