With more than 11 million people in a living space about the size of Maryland, Rwanda is the most densely populated nation in Africa. You encounter people everywhere. Columns of dignified women tread well-traveled country roads gracefully balancing bundles of just about anything on their heads. Men, hunched over with exertion, push bicycles laden with bananas or other produce to market. Children, of course, are everywhere.
So it is hard to imagine this country void of people. But that was Rwanda in July 1994, when Pat Johns, CRS director of risk management and staff security, arrived. The nation had virtually ceased to exist.
“There were dead bodies in the street,” he recalled. “Nineteen years ago and I still have the images in my head.”
The genocide touched every family, every hamlet and every institution in Rwanda. Catholic Relief Services lost five staff people. Rwandan-based CRS staff had been traumatized. Most had lost family members or friends. Across the country, CRS programs, painstakingly built since the organization arrived there in 1963, had been destroyed.
But even before the war and genocide ended, CRS had already begun by June 1994 to formulate a response to the immediate humanitarian crisis, by assisting orphans and providing food assistance. By 1997 the organization had shifted from emergency relief mode to more transitional support, initiating agricultural rehabilitation programs to provide returning refugees and the internally displaced with the necessary tools and seeds needed to return to farming, the chief livelihood for most rural Rwandans.
Clearly, though, in the context of the worst genocide since the end of World War II, a different kind of seeding was also needed. Working with the Rwandan Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission, CRS helped develop “a structure for peace building” that focused on community reconciliation through trauma healing, instilling peace and justice principles and conflict management.
Some 37,000 “justice and peace animators” were trained in basic human rights principles and conflict resolution methods and sent into the field to support village level reconciliation efforts. A five-year community healing and reconciliation project, begun in 2008, concluded in 2012. But the animators remain active in their communities today, serving Rwandans still suffering from the psychological wounds of the genocide.
“Considering our efforts we are really happy,” said Oswald Samvura, program manager for the Church’s reconciliation effort, of the CRS partnership. “I also think we have many things to do, because in 20 years you can’t really say that you have achieved all you have to achieve. We are happy with what we’ve done but we are still responding to the needs of the people.”
All Catholic Relief Services programs in Rwanda interlock and aim at fostering a culture of self-sufficiency. CRS agricultural programs promote productivity as well as food security and enhanced nutrition by educating subsistence farmers on improved agricultural techniques. The “Farmer Field School” approach teaches a combination of bio-intensive methods. Small livestock husbandry, for example, is encouraged as a cost effective form of bio-fertilizer.
Kitchen gardens allow families to cultivate a wider range of nutritionally balanced foods for their own home consumption, thus improving family health. Improved hygiene such as regular hand washing and the use of clean and covered latrines are also taught.
“In order to make sure we have the biggest impact on most of the Rwandan population we are trying to implement an integrated approach meaning we combine nutrition activities together with food security and economic strengthening,” explained Marie-Noelle Senyana-Mottier, CRS head of programs. “So most Rwandan people can increase their income, improve their community well-being and have improved agriculture and nutrition practices.”
On a sun-soaked hill in Gikongoro Diocese, Huye District, members of a farming cooperative demonstrated how the methods they learned can improve yield by as much as 20 times.
“They’re really working the soil here,” explained Joseph Muyango, a CRS interpreter. “They dig deep, up to 60 centimeters, then they add soil and fertilizer. This way you replenish the soil.” The farmers at the site have earned enough money from their enterprises to buy some additional land and plant more coffee trees.
And that is another pillar of the CRS program in Rwanda, financial security.
Access to ready money is virtually nonexistent for the rural poor. In the countryside, commercial banks are largely absent and even credit unions and microfinance institutions are few and scattered. In any case, most rural farmers would not be able to meet even the minimum requirements to take out a loan from a commercial lender.
Catholic Relief Services developed Savings and Internal Lending Communities (SILC), a form of cooperative finance that offers the poor “banking” that is affordable and within reach. SILC groups leverage the contributions of participants into a fund from which group members may internally borrow at a predetermined interest rate and term. To date some 3,100 SILC groups have been formed with more than 72,000 members.
One of the most successful SILC groups is in Kibungo Diocese. In late October most of them were gathered in a shaded grove at the local parish to celebrate “World Savings Day.” There was dancing, singing and several members offered personal testimony on how joining the saving and loans community had changed their lives. One man told how he’d finally been able to purchase a metal door for his hut.
“There are about 4,500 members,” beamed Father Emmanuel Rubagumya, Caritas director for Kibungo Diocese. “They promised next time you come to be 6,000!
“Today there was a message,” he continued. “We asked them to take this message to their neighbors so they also may improve their lives. So it’s really evangelizing.”
Catholic Relief Services has many partners in Rwanda. It works closely with the Catholic Church, of course, and with Caritas Rwanda, the Church’s domestic humanitarian agency. It also partners with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and with private donors and entrepreneurs, such as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.
One partner that often proves to be difficult in many developing countries is the host government. Not so in Rwanda.
“Rwanda is a little bit of a unique country, not just within Africa, but in many ways in other countries where CRS operates,” explained LeAnn Hager, CRS country representative. “The government has really demonstrated a certain level of competency. Corruption in Rwanda is very low and the government really puts a lot of emphasis on reducing and in a sense eliminating corruption.”
According to a government report, “The Rwandan Household Living Conditions Survey,” economic growth between 2006 and 2011 reduced the number of Rwandans living in poverty from 57 to 45 percent.
She said these conditions made cooperation with the government possible, especially in areas where their priorities align.
“We participate very actively,” she said. “We believe it’s very important for CRS’s voice to be heard. Because we believe that with the experience we have gained in Rwanda from working closely with our partners, we have something valuable to say. We’ve been fortunate in where we’ve developed core competencies as a country program that they aligned fairly well with the government’s priorities on eliminating malnutrition, promoting various aspects within agriculture, promoting the role of women in all facets of society and some other program areas.
“The last couple of years, we really went through a period of transition and restructuring and we’re much more deliberate about what we felt the best role for CRS in Rwanda was going to be,” she added. “The underlying objective of CRS’s work here is to help promote the self-reliance of the Rwandan population.”
Catholic New York reporter Ron Lajoie traveled to Rwanda, Oct. 17-27, as one of the inaugural recipients of Catholic Relief Services’ Egan Journalism Fellowship.