"They used to sleep on grass mattresses...": Our projects in Rwanda

When I joined World Jewish Relief last September I was surprised to hear that we had programmes in Rwanda. You too might be thinking – “surely there aren’t any Jews in Rwanda?” I quickly learnt that World Jewish Relief reaches beyond the Jewish community at times of international disaster and in contexts that resonate with Jewish experiences of persecution. Tragically, the brutality and premeditated nature of the Rwandan genocide resounded strongly with the Holocaust of 1940s Europe; and so ten years ago we started to work there helping young people orphaned by the genocide. Our projects tackle poverty at its root by focussing on livelihoods, training young people to become farmers and enabling them to generate a sustainable income.

So it was that on a Wednesday in July, I found myself squashed on the back seat of a pickup truck, jostling along the dusty dirt tracks of rural Rwanda. Next to me was Ekaterina Mitiaev, World Jewish Relief’s Head of Impact and Livelihoods and Gilbert, our Agronomist, pronounced Jil-berrrr.  In the front was Isaac, our Project Manager at Uyisenga Ni Imanzi and when I glanced behind me, I could see two of our farmers and their friends who had hopped in the back for a ride. It was amazing to think that just a couple of hours earlier I had emerged from the plane at Kigali in a dreamy daze, feeling nervous and excited for my eight day trip. I was there with Ekaterina to gain a deeper understanding of World Jewish Relief’s projects in Rwanda, to run workshops and to gather information for some of our funders.

Rwanda truck journey

A video snapshot of the bumpy ride!

Rwanda was like a whole other world to me, I have never been anywhere like it or seen street scenes so different to my own. On our way through Rwamagana (a district in the country’s Eastern Province) we passed some amazing sights: women expertly balancing anything and everything on their heads including a hoe, bicycles with twenty plastic chairs towering on the back, and goats wandering along the roadside. The land is hilly, and despite being dry season, the valleys were lush with banana palms and other beautiful trees. Having experienced a horrific genocide only 23 years ago, I was intrigued to see how far the country had come, and the role that World Jewish Relief is playing. 

After an hour, the road had become too bumpy so we descended to Lake Muhazi by foot to visit the fields of the young farmers who take part in the Icyerekezo project, run jointly by World Jewish Relief and Uyisenga Ni Imanzi (UNM). The project trains young people, who have astoundingly few opportunities and faced unbelievable trauma during the genocide, to become motivated, successful farmers. With much excitement and pride, Darius (aged 28) and Fidele (aged 26) showed us their tomato plants and explained how they spray, irrigate and fertilise correctly.

20170719 143940Fidele with tomato crops

But the impacts of the project run much deeper than simply knowing how to grow crops. At a workshop Ekaterina and I ran for 20 farmers the following day, participants told us how their lives have changed unimaginably. They used to sleep on grass mattresses, now they sleep on proper mattresses. Most now have electricity in their homes. They finally have good quality chairs, plates and cutlery!

IMG 20170720 WA0007Workshop participants making a 'W' sign for World Jewish Relief

When we asked at the workshop what they believed before the project I was amazed to hear that they thought earning money was uncontrollable, you will always be poor because your parents are poor, living means struggling, and they had no purpose at all. And now? Placide told us: “I feel like today is the first day of my life”. These young people finally have control over their lives and they believe that they can achieve their goals with hard work and self-motivation.  

20170720 162250Vestine

But perhaps the most powerful moment for me was when Vestine, a lady beautifully attired in traditional African dress and headpiece, stood up and said: “Before the project we believed that women can only stay in the home, and if they do go out to work it is only for a few hours. Now, I work the same hours as any man, I am a successful farmer and I can stand here in a room with twenty men and speak for myself”. Vestine is now a force in her community, and the family’s breadwinner.

I return to London with such amazement at the Icyerekezo project and the importance of World Jewish Relief’s work: it is empowering, bold and gives young people the tools and confidence they need to finally fulfil their potential.

Further information on our Livelihoods programmes can be found here

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