Final Thoughts on Rwanda…


Before the Cambodia Issue comes out in a few days, I wanted to link to some of the articles I wrote for the Rwanda Issue, because many aren’t posted on my personal blog.  They live on the World Next Door magazine app, but are also available online.

Life_mainLife After Death

“There is just no place for me in Africa.  Through friends and textbooks and CNN, I understand Africa has complicated needs and a million qualified people already… read more


normal_mainRedefining Normal

This is forgiveness, I thought. Not emotionally safe at all. Against all the “normal” forgiveness rules, right in the middle of his broken heart. Why? Because God told…  read more


memorial History Lesson

“Well, hello there! So you’re interested in learning about Rwanda’s history? Great! Have a seat, pour a cup of something hot (or cold?), and let’s chat! I’d love… read more


Ask_WND_mainThe Advice Column

“What are your favorite travel apps? Why help 3rd world countries instead of those in need here? What do you see missions organizations doing wrong?” read more


umuganda_2-385x255 Umuganda

“When I think of the phrase Community Service, I picture chain gangs in orange jumpsuits, kids on probation, and/or Lindsay Lohan. I also think of church and… read more


GorillaCulture Guide

Fact #1: Gorillas > Humans It costs $750 USD to see the gorillas here. The joke in Rwanda is that gorillas make more than the humans. In fact, they say, if the… read more



The Coffee Process
A photo album

see more


PLUS! There a bunch of other fun elements: Language Lessons, Jeff’s articles about a professional Rwandan Basketball player and a unique coffee plantation community, maps, interactive photos, lost in translation moments, must-have items for travel, the many uses of cassava, an info page about our Partner ministry ALARM, the personal story of the founder of ALARM and reviews of the book and movie As We Forgive. It’s jam-packed, and all right here. And it’s Rwanderful.


It’s Online, Too, Grams.

PS: No smart device? You can’t beg, borrow or steal an iPad to browse the Rwanda Issue? Don’t steal one, because the content is available online! (minus the interactive features and the bells and whistles) If you can find an iPad, do it. If you can’t, click here to see the content online!


Rwanda Issue is Here!

It’s here! It’s here! The June issue of World Next Door on Rwanda issue is ready for download!

This is our first content (writing and photography) for World Next Door, and our first visit to Rwanda!  The issue is jam-packed full of incredible stories, beautiful photography, and fun interactive features that we know you’ll love.


This month, find out where your morning cup of coffee comes from, get an illustrated Rwandan history lesson, and learn to speak Kinyarwanda like a pro! Plus, read how African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM) is facilitating reconciliation and recovery in this beautiful country with a painful past.

Grab a cup of coffee and a comfy chair — and enjoy your trip to Rwanda.

A Personal Narrative of Rwanda’s History

Nobody quote me! This is the history as I understand it from interviews, memorial sites and literature, and this post was written to supplement the previous post here. So! Grab a cup of something hot (or cold?) and settle in…

Centuries before colonization, the country was united for centuries under a kingship rule: one people, one language, one history, one king.

Although Rwanda was already Rwanda, the Germans showed in 1985 up and said, Yep. This looks good, then claimed the land. After WW1, the League of Nations said, Uhh… nope, took the land from the Germans and gave it to the Belgians. Belgium was granted governance of the land and maintained a colonial occupation in the country until Rwanda’s independence in 1962.

Benefits of colonization: Schooling, medicine, infrastructure, export markets and Christianity.

Drawback of colonization: The institution of a primary identity to all Rwandans by the Germans and reinforced by the Belgians. Rwandans were categorized by height, facial structure and socioeconomic status (i.e. how many cows a person has) and given an identity that applied to the current generation and his descendants. There is some controversy about how closely the Hutu and Tutsi are related. The memorial book from the museum in Kigali says,  “In 1932, anyone with ten cows was a Tutsi, and anyone with less than 10 cows was a Hutu, and this also applied to his descendants.”  What isn’t disputed is that the European colonizers blew these differences way out of proportion for their own gain. Belgian authorities then introduced physical ID cards, and each person’s imposed identity began to determine his opportunities. The 15% Tutsi were perceived as elite, and the 85% Hutu as disadvantaged. The key here is perceived, because although many Tutsi were in power thanks to a purposeful promotion of Tutsi leaders by the Belgian authorities, only a minority of Tutsi actually received direct benefit from elevated status. Still. Discrimination was already internalized, Hutu felt oppressed and resentment grew. When the second-to-last king died in the late 1950s, massacres of Tutsi were organized and thousands were killed or fled the country.

A year later, with pressure from the colonial powers to democratize, Rwanda held its first elections in 1961, and the Hutu majority elected Prime Minister K, founder of the first party for the emancipation of the Hutu. Rwanda gained independence a year later in 1962. Now. Don’t emancipation and independence sound good?

Unfortunately, as one friend in Rwanda put it, Just because the rest of the world is ready for democracy doesn’t mean our country was ready to handle majority power.

Because the power had shifted into the hands of the Hutu, Rwanda became a repressive single-party system intent on ethnic cleansing of Tutsis. Between the 1950s and 1970s, 700,000 Tutsi were exiled from the country—they were forced off their land and farms, lost their jobs and bank accounts and animals, and were denied peaceful attempts to return to their country.

A group of exiles joined together in bordering countries to form the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and invaded the country in 1990 for the purpose of reclaiming the land that was rightfully theirs and to re-establish equal rights. President H, who had taken control of the country in the 70s during a coup, used this “invasion” to instill fear in the Hutu majority. See?! They’re attacking us! He and his regime used the radio, newspapers and TV to issue a propaganda campaign aimed at persuading the Hutu majority to see their compatriots, their neighbors, even their own families as power-hungry enemies who were planning a secret war against the Hutu. Civil war erupted, and again, many Tutsi fled after intense discrimination— unjust jailing, unequal opportunities, and waves of massacres in different sections of the country. Here is an example of the propaganda used: The Hutu Ten Commandments.

In 1993, a peace agreement was signed between the Rwandan Government and the RPF trying to establish equality. A neutral force was to be deployed (the French) to assist Rwanda in their plan to integrate, demobilize and disarm. Refugees were allowed home, and an RPF battalion was established in the capitol city. President H and his extremists saw this, though, as a surrender to the RPF, and they weren’t real happy about it.

Meanwhile (nothing good comes from this phrase) President H entered into the largest-ever Rwandan arms deal with a French company for $12 million with a loan guaranteed by the French government. Whaaa?!

While the propaganda was working to convince the Hutu that the Tutsi were out to get them, in reality, a secret war was being planned by the Hutu against the Tutsi. A group called the Interahamwe had been training in Rwandan army camps, and the training was taking place at a rate of about 300 people per week. The group was also registering all Tutsi in every city—literally names and addresses on a piece of paper—for an extermination plan.  Weapons were being provided by places like South Africa, and training was facilitated by—guess who?  The French Army.

And all of this was pre-genocide!

On April 6th 1994, at 8:23p, President H’s plan was shot down on its approach to Kigali City airport, and it’s widely understood that the Interahamwe staged the shooting and blamed it on the Tutsi, telling the country: If they can kill our president, they can do anything! So. Plane went down at about 8:30p, and by 9:15p roadblocks were in place and houses were being searched. The shooting started by 9:30p with death lists prepared in advance… The genocide was instant. Roadblocks were the primary method of control.  No one could pass without a Hutu ID card.

The government used the school and churches to lure people out of hiding under the pretense of safety, then locked people inside and killed them. Hundreds of thousands died inside the walls of a these “safe places.”

The structured genocide lasted for 100 days and almost 1 million Tutsi and Hutu moderates were killed. Although the RPF was able to establish control in Kigali in July 1994, attacks from Hutu insurgents continued for years after.  Friends told us they didn’t feel entirely secure in Rwanda until 2000 or 2001.

Many of the perpetrators fled the country, but the ones who were captured were tried and jailed. Between 2004-2005, because the jails were overcrowded, about 40,000 perpetrators who had confessed to their crimes were released from jail back to the community through Gacaca courts (tribal courts) a village-based system designed to promote justice and healing at the same time. Through reconciliation work and the Gacaca courts, many offenders have sought forgiveness from the survivors and their families and are making efforts to amend by building houses, harvesting and processing their crops, etc. Even more unbelievable are the survivors who offer forgiveness freely and who accept this gesture in the name of the forgiveness they themselves received through Christ.

The current president K was elected in 2003, re-elected in 2010 and will end his term in 2017. He has maintained steady development, growth and reconciliation with goals of Rwanda becoming a middle-income country by 2020 and highly emphasizes Rwanda becoming self-reliant. There is no longer a distinction between ethnic groups, and, in fact, categorizing as such is illegal.  The government and churches continue to work hard toward forgiveness and reconciliation…

On and On and On It Goes

Hey guys.

I keep waiting for inspired, insightful B to pop out and organize all my thoughts and experiences about our last two weeks in Rwanda. Instead, famished B jumped out and ate 5 million pastries for a week in Europe, and then exhausted B slept it off, and rain-logged B wasted all our time outside planting flower boxes when we came home and it was 85 and sunny, then bug-hating B felt compelled to clean all the floors so we could spray for spring bugs, freezing B just wants to drink hot chocolate and wear sweatpants and shiver since it’s all 55 and rainy, and professional B is preparing to leave for Cambodia in less than a month.

Indulge me in this very public form of therapy while I go in there and find her, okay?

Part of the tucking-away is that we spent the last two weeks in Rwanda in a fog of institutionalized mourning. You might think you can imagine this, but it’s really hard to describe. It was entirely opposite of all our other bright, cheery experiences in Rwanda up to that point, and the somberness of it all moved in quickly over the country like the shadow of a storm front. Literally the skies turned to rain and clouds, the streets emptied, everything closed—businesses, grocery stores, restaurants. Music was not played during memorial week and TVs remained off in public places. Armed guards appeared at roundabouts and other random places.

We noticed when we first arrived in the country that almost nobody used the word genocide. Most people spoke in terms of “the event” or “the tragedy” or “our country’s history”. Nobody refers to a differentiation of any ethnic group ever and, in fact, doing so can be considered genocidal ideation and is cause for arrest depending on context.

But during the memorial period, which lasts 100 days beginning April 7th, the phrase Genocide against the Tutsi was everywhere. Banners, signs, ribbons, etc.  It’s almost like the entire country functions as normal 265 days of the year and reserves all of its collective grief for the months of April, May and June. Even the weather follows this pattern, as the genocide occurred during the long rainy season, and each year the rains and gray skies come in April as they always have.

During the first week, the government hosted country-wide memorial conferences facilitated by local government and church leaders. People were off work, kids were out of school, curfews were enforced, and everywhere we looked groups of people were huddled in buildings, parking lots, tents, schools, soccer fields and parks. Most were listening government leaders speak on different topics like justice, forgiveness, unity, and self-reliance, which (we learned from survivors) was difficult for some. The people who facilitated the genocide were the government. And although this is an entirely different government, the fact that the government is facilitating reconciliation can be a trigger in itself. It’s institutionalized programming. It must sometimes just feel eerie.

Foreign involvement in the different local services is tricky and requires special permissions and security, considering varying feelings of foreign abandonment and the fact that the country continues to process in the presence of such an international community.

Amazingly (as we were initially told this would not be possible) the country director of ALARM obtained special permission from the government leaders in our neighborhood to bring us to one of the memorial services in our district.  We understood in advance there would be no pictures, no translating, and the service would be entirely in Kinyarwanda. We would be flies on walls there, and we agreed.

We pulled up to an empty field and parked under the solitary tree. There were four sections of benches forming a square around two giant speakers in the middle of the field and a microphone. There were 500-600 people sitting in all the benches and crowded in rows behind the benches. People hardly made any noise, even the kids. It was 3pm in the blazing sun. Quiet, calming genocide music played with an airy woodwind instrument and lyrics that said things like: Never forget the genocide of the Tutsi, as people sat and listened reflectively.

We approached the set-up from across the field, and as people turned to look at us, I can say with certainty: I have never felt so uncomfortable or out of place in my entire life. What are we doing here, I whispered to Jeff. We should never have come. This is not our memorial! But as they ushered us to a seat and we waited for the program to begin, it occurred to me that attending an event that commemorates the violent killings of a million people should probably not ever feel comfortable—no matter who I am or whether or not I belong there.

The service was 4.5 hours long and in the blazing sun. The site was surrounded by four armed guards, and the first speaker was a Commander in full uniform speaking about security, followed by the Vice President of the Senate and the former coordinator of the Civil Society in Kigali City. The theme of the 19th Commemoration was Self-reliance, and the speakers encouraged each individual person, family and village to be responsible for their own security—food, shelter, safety—in their own villages and homes. Poverty leads to dependence and reliance on others, both at a personal level and as a country on an international level, which leaves everyone vulnerable. Rwanda is on a fast track toward development post-genocide.

The VP of the Senate directed her talks toward the youth. She reviewed the history of the country and she narrated events leading up to the genocide from 1959 on, compelling the youth toward resilience and unity. She reminded the crowd that not all Hutu were involved in the killings. For the Tutsi to even have survivors, it was because there were moderate Hutu who fought tirelessly and courageously to rescue others and refuse involvement. She also reminded the youth that 100 years had passed (1894-1994) that Rwandans were not themselves. Prior to colonization we had a solid leadership, she explained. But colonization divided us. That was not who we are. The VP then challenged everyone to see everyone as human. Both sides. All we need to be human, she said, is to value each other.

We knew all this not because we understood it as it was happening, but because we got into the car when it was all over to a hearty round laughs and back-pats from our friends who said, Brooke and Jeff can now write a paper on how to persevere! Almost five hours in a field under the sun listening to speakers in another language on a tricky topic in the middle of a questionably welcoming crowd. And how to communicate in a language you don’t understand, another friend chimed in. They laughed and said something about praying for the gift of tongues, or at least the gift of interpretations.

In the end, when the VP and other government leaders, along with many of the people attending, came up to shake our hands and genuinely thank us (in English!) for our interest, attendance and respect despite all the barriers, we didn’t even know what to say. We had been a mix of fear, embarrassment, grief, sweat, and confusion. But it meant a lot to attend, for both sides, and we were so thankful to have been granted the opportunity. J and I breathed sighs of relief and looked at each other like, Did this really just happen? Such an intimate event in the lives of the friends we had met, and so hot!

In the car on the way back, along with the jokes about tongues and interpretations, the speeches were translated and our friends also explained that the attendees were a mix of ethnic groups, with more Tutsi than Hutu. Among the officials there were no Hutu.  I thought this might be good, but our friend explained that when all the talks are led by one side (Tutsi) they sometimes have difficulty, even though it would make sense that the oppressed side would facilitate the memorials. Doing that is how the whole system was maintained in the first place, though.  It’s better for all when the officials are a mix of both groups.

So. After memorial week, the rest of the 100 days is typically spent caring for the survivors around the country, visiting some of the other memorial sites, and for us, visiting the country’s pre-genocide historical sites, like the Kingship Palace, the National Art Museum and National Forest—these are the things that make Rwanda Rwanda.

And this is where I started to get a little bit lost inside.

I consider myself to be mostly aware of my limits, and I function with a relatively high emotional IQ, but seriously. I’ve been all confused and jacked-up ever since our last [death-defying] trip to the National Forest* wherein we didn’t actually see the National Forest, but the Murambi Memorial. Murambi: 900 bodies preserved in limestone exactly as they fell at one of the most horrific massacre sites in the country. About 45,000 Tutsis were killed at the brand new technical school, which sat on a beautiful and isolated hilltop, first lured out of hiding by the Bishop and the Mayor with promises of protection by the French Army, and then days later, two hours after the French Army left, locked inside and killed. Here’s where it gets crazy. The French Army returned after the attack with equipment to dig mass graves, buried the bodies at this site, then BUILT A VOLLEYBALL COURT ON TOP OF THE GRAVES AND PLAYED VOLLEYBALL to hide their negligence.   I’m sorry, what?! And in the nineties? How does this happen?  And how have we not all decided that a) we shouldn’t probably kill each other or allow others to be killed in our presence, but in the case that we do b) it’s totally inappropriate to play volleyball on top of the graves of the people we just implicitly killed.


We saw the graves, the actual bodies—two entire classrooms of children—the clothes, the glasses, the pens, the tufts of hair.  And we saw the equipment. We saw these things on the exact date the Bishop and Mayor beckoned the community to the school nineteen years ago under the pretense of safety.  You can imagine how eerie it was to walk from room to room to see the bodies and to read the storyboard of events with dates like April 16thon April 16th!  We also came home after the first church memorial in Ntarama to hear news of the Boston marathon bombing, which got all mixed up in the shadow of the horror we had just seen and would continue to see during the weeks at the memorial sites and services.

Even harder was traveling to and from the sites and the forest with our friend who described how he had fled on these exact roads, hiding with his wife, infant daughter and two-year-old for eleven months, because although the institutionalized genocide lasted 100 days, attacks continued for a decade before and after the actual genocide! In 1997 a girls’ school was attacked, and 17 girls who wouldn’t separate into ethnic groups were shot and killed. We’re all Rwandan here, they said. A month before that? A primary school. It wasn’t until about 2000 or 2001 that many Rwandans felt safe and secure from Hutu insurgents sneaking across the border.

This was a very bad roadblock here, our friend would say as we drove toward the forest, or There is the house that sheltered us. Other friends told us from time to time, That river there was red from all the blood.  We learned at the Murambi site that the pastor who married our friends was killed there along with his family. I wondered as we walked from room to room if any of the bodies we saw belonged to the pastor or his family. A genocide looks totally different when dealing with a specific face or name. This is why an entire room is dedicated to photos of each victim a the Kigali memorial. A million people were not killed during the genocide. One person was killed. And then another person. And another person. And another person.


I remember thinking after that week: I don’t have any words for this. I don’t have words for the 900 bodies I just saw OR for an 8-year-old who was bombed. I don’t feel like I can share all the thoughts or pictures or the things I read. But I wished I could take the banner from the memorial site and wrap the entire globe in it:

If you knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.

Instead, I wrote a status requesting an antidote of baby monkeys dressed as humans. The baby monkeys never came (which is weird, because when I asked for one million cute puppies on a different bad day, people posted piles of adorable puppies on my wall for days…?).

What came, though, was so much better. It was a song, which confirms my theory that God moonlights as a DJ. At least in my life, God speaks to me in that way. I was at church the following weekend, a non-denominational service with a 50/50 mix of Rwandans and ex-pats, which means half the songs are in Kinyarwanda and half are in English. I’ve heard this song a million times, but for some reason it gave me a brand new hope that Sunday:

Higher than the mountains that I face
Stronger than the power of the grave
Constant through the trial and the change
One thing… Remains

Your love never fails, never gives up
Never runs out on me

And On and on and on and on it goes
It overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never, ever, have to be afraid
One thing remains

In death, In life, I’m confident and
covered by the power of Your great love
My debt is paid, there’s nothing that can
separate my heart from Your great love…


As Rwandans and ex-pats lit 19 candles in remembrance of the genocide while simultaneously worshiping with each other—many alongside nationalities that not only didn’t help, but literally and figuratively played volleyball on top of their graves—I felt like I was witnessing a miracle. Humanity is a crapshoot, and God loves us anyway. Through His love, we somehow manage to love each other.

His love never fails, never gives up, never runs out.

It doesn’t run out after a genocide. It doesn’t run out after or a bombing. It doesn’t run out after a drug binge. It doesn’t even run out when you leave your 2 y/o on a porch at 4am (left field, I know, but it’s what a friend was dealing with on that day).

ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes

Did you know that?!

God’s restorative love is moving. Sometimes in Rwanda and sometimes right here inside. Sometimes like a torrent, sometimes like a trickle, sometimes in the survivor and sometimes in the offender, sometimes bright and sunshiny, sometimes quiet within the rain and tears, sometimes so intense it shreds us to pieces and splays us out there, and sometimes so tender it carries us and tucks us away.

For the feature article Life After Death, written about our entire experience in Rwanda before, during, and after memorial week, click here.

For a personal narrative of the Rwanda’s history as I understand it click here. It’s the very next post, and it’s in my own words, so nobody quote me! It’s important to include for the many Rwandans who long to be known for more than the country’s tragic history and do not wish to be defined by the genocide as the nation continues to develop and grow. Rwanda existed before and after colonization.

* You know, the 12-hour Lampoon-type trip where we were stuck driving inside an actual cloud up and down mountains around Nyungwe Forest in 50-degree pouring rain, our driver manually wiping his side of the windshield with one hand while driving the stick shift down the slope with his other hand, stopping every 15 minutes to ask a roadside stand for a screwdriver to fix the wiper. Every time we stopped the battery died, because it was disconnected every single car-swallowing pothole we hit- Jeff on one side of the backseat holding my neck steady to mitigate the nausea that started on our way up the mountain, and me crunched on his side too, because it was raining inside the car on my side. For the last two hours: pitch black with thick fog, driving through densely populated areas (a refugee camp, for example) with no visibility. Yes, that trip.

The Coffee Process in Pics

Light Beer For the Christians

JenetteMeet Jenette.

Jenette is the founder of a small group of business women in Musanze, each on her third round of micro-finance through ALARM. Encouraged by the benefits of functioning as a group instead of as individuals, they have formed the Social Blessings Women’s Group, of which Jenette is president. There are 26 women in this group, and they meet monthly to encourage one another, to sing and pray, problem-solve and solution-share.  They have been together for two years, and their mission is to empower women and young girls toward business ownership.

In the group, you will find women running canteens, small farms (food & rabbits!), market stands, and tailoring shops. J and I were able to spend a couple of days visiting six women to learn about their businesses. As we visited, we learned that two of the women are widows caring for a collective 10 kids and two orphans between them; two of the women are HIV positive also caring for their own kids and three orphans; two are the sole earners in their families, and four women are supplemental earners. All have given permission for us to share their stories and photos.

Portrait shopIn addition to the monthly fellowship and encouragement the association offers, each woman gives a small amount of weekly profit to a mutual fund, allowing the group to celebrate happy events in each other’s lives, like Christmas parties, birthdays and weddings, or to help with illness and financial distress when needed. In two years, the group has collected $800,000 RWF, which is about $1500 USD, has hosted many celebrations, workshops and conferences, and provided assistance to those in need. The women report their group to be such a success, their husbands have tried to get into the group, because they so admire the women’s entrepreneurship and progress. They are also eager for the social events, because there is sure to be good meat, music and fellowship.

Portrait“We are lucky to partner with ALARM. They have empowered us economically, physically and spiritually”

ALARM rents a portion of the World Relief building in Musanze for the women to gather each month, offers intermittent trainings for the women, and is currently collecting funds to provide a fourth round of micro-finance for those who want to continue to grow their businesses.

Jenette describes how the group came to form under ALARM’s sponsorship: “I knew that ALARM had a Community Transformation ministry, and I knew they were running a business center. So I went there and introduced myself. I asked how we could start a women’s group here in Musanze. ALARM connected me with a women’s group in Kigali they were working with and told us they would come help us start a similar group in our own town. The staff from ALARM began coming to train us here, we strengthened in numbers, and together came up with a group name: Social Blessings Women’s Group.  We then elected an administration committee, and we have been working with ALARM from that day on.”


How about some individual stories?

VeggiesDomothila is married with three sons and serves as the Treasurer for the Social Blessings Women’s Group. She operates a small canteen at the High School selling goodies, personal items, and materials for school: soap, milk, Fanta, exercise books, bread, etc. She has been blessed by the loans given through ALARM to “boost and increase” her business. On her first loan, she bought some milk and small items to sell in the canteen. On the second round, she purchased a small fridge and began selling cold drinks. Her hope is to ultimately purchase a photocopy machine.


Godelive is the Group’s accountant. She is married with 3 kids and runs a tailoring business. She has used her loans to purchase a special sewing machine that does detailed embroidery.


Marie Claire is a shopkeeper with nine kids. Nine! She sells snacks, sugar, rice, tomato sauce, potato, sweet potato, banana, soap, cabbage, biscuits.

Theresie is a widow with five kids, and she serves as a counseling adviser for the Group. She is also a tailor, has purchased a sewing machine, and uses her income to pay school fees for kids and maintain her household.

Jenette, as mentioned above, is the president of the Group and is married with kids. On her first round of micro-finance, she purchased Irish potato seeds, 3 rabbits and a pig. On her second round, she purchased a sewing machine, corn and sorghum, and she reports the pig gave manure, which has enhanced her farming. She is now up to 15 rabbits and two pigs, harvested 5 bags of corn, and continues to farm.

Sewing PortraitLaureuce is a mom to three kids and is also a student sponsoring herself through school on her business profits. She is a tailor, sells clothing, and used her initial loan to purchase a sewing machine.

Sada is also a shopkeeper selling many of the same items listed above, and is married with no kids. The visit to her canteen was unique, in that she personally showed us how to prepare two different types of beer: light beer for the Christians, and strong beer for everyone else…!

Sofie is a farmer and runs a market stand. She has 8 kids and is a supplemental earner in her family.

Devotha and Febrenie are both tailors. Devotha is a widow with 7 kids, the single provider for her family, and also cares for one orphan. Febrenie has four kids and cares for two orphans.

For the entire photo album, including portraits, shops, the “light beer”, market stands and behind-the-scenes photos, click here.

Kabuga: a Tiny School Equipping Street Kids

On a little dirt road halfway up a little hill sits a tiny little school—two classrooms and a supply closet—with hammers and tape measures, screwdrivers and a circle saw, and 16 students training in the areas of mechanics, electricity, masonry, carpentry, and welding. Many are former street kids and/or orphans due to the loss or imprisonment of their parents following the 1994 genocide, and are between the ages of 15 and 22—although there is no age limit, simply a stated need for skills.

This is where we hung out for a couple of days.

Kabuga Vocational Training Centre is ALARM’s response to street and orphaned children who were living without education and other basic needs in a small village outside Kigali after the 1994 genocide.

My dream is to be a good electrician and get a job with a company to help install electricity in my village.
-Mikali, age 16


I want to be a good mechanic so I can take care of my family and help my community.
-Kinongisse, age 22

Jeff and I visited the students, teachers and graduates of the Training Center to learn more about life and work in Kabuga. The first day we spent at school with current students, and the second day in the field with four different working grads: a welder, a carpenter and two moto taxi drivers, and two auto mechanic interns. Of the students we met, two grads are former street kids, two are orphans, one is a father of five, and all are primary earners for their siblings/family members. We were also greeted and accompanied by the school’s two teachers who receive their pay via in-kind donations (like soap) totaling less than $20 monthly.

Moto drivers and teachers

The school runs on a budget of $0, and relies solely on support that comes through ALARM, donations sent by places like Home Depot, or spontaneous gifts left by traveling visitors. Teachers receive no salary, and, in fact, sometimes pay transportation costs to and from school each day.

Why would teachers do this?

Emmanuel“I have a gift of helping kids without hope,” says teacher Emmanuel, father of three who quit his paying job five years ago to teach at the school when he felt called to help ‘those who are weak’ as he has read in the Bible and has been taught in church. He was recruited by Celestin (founder of ALARM), and says he answered the call to serve.

My salary is not physical,” he says, when asked how he makes his living and supports his family. “It is spiritual. I can’t explain it. It’s a mystery how we are cared for. Visitors give gifts and we survive from them. You can’t imagine how God provides for my family. ALARM helps us get basic tools to the kids at school.”

About 180 students have graduated since the school was founded in 2004, and more than 90% have been able to get jobs, and create co-ops and associations.  Twenty-one students are currently enrolled in the Center this year.

The entire vocational training program takes about 18 months, with one year in the classroom, and six months in the field. Many students found the school through word-of-mouth, or from graduates who had been through the program. Some were simply living on the streets and saw the school, or saw others walking to the school. Every student we encountered reports they were warmly welcomed by the teachers when the approached the school to ask how they could become students.

Students are able to select one of two vocational tracks: mechanic and electricity, or masonry, carpentry and welding.  At the end of their fieldwork, they are provided with certificates, and they can go find jobs.

ALARM has proposed a budget to pay the teachers a small salary of $200/month, and hopes to raise those funds this year. In addition, ALARM hopes to purchase four motorbikes per year to allow the students a sort of rent-to-own system for those embarking on moto-taxi careers. Currently, students have to rent motos from private owners at a cost of $5000 RWF per day, and the rental fee comes from their earnings. To put this in perspective, a typical moto ride costs between 500-700 RWF.  Slow days can sometimes mean no food, and the drivers live within this rent-work-pay cycle indefinitely, because most can never earn enough to purchase their own motorbikes. One motorbike costs about $2,200USD!

Testimonies of Students who have graduated:

Martin T (pictured above) is the 26 y/o single “husband” of the family to his mom and sister. He graduated in 2009 with skills in carpentry, electricity and driving. Before he joined the vocational school, he had dropped out of secondary school because he could not afford the school fees. He describes this difficult time in this way: No job, no money, no life, no future. However, when he discovered the school, he found the teachers to be kind and helpful and he was accepted into the program with no questions. He is now earning his living as a moto taxi driver with aspirations to become a truck driver some day. He continues to care for his sister and mom.

Mark M (pictured above) is a 25 y/o who graduated from the Training Center in 2009. He was living on the streets as a teenager after he lost his parents, and he had never been educated, even at a primary school level. After learning about the Vocational Center from other graduates who had been provided with an education at no cost, Mark walked to the school and was welcomed in to the program. He is now making his living as a taxi driver.

WelderDavid N is a 27 y/o welder, the second-born of five orphaned kids, who, prior to David’s ability to find work as a welder, lived under bridges and on the streets, feeding his brothers and sister from dustbins. When he joined the school, his education gave him the opportunity to earn an income, and he now works as a welder. He is able to rent a small home, buy food, clothing and shoes for his siblings, and send the two youngest brothers to secondary school. His older sister takes care of the house and siblings with hopes of one day being able to study, too. David has been a welder for five years and aspires to one day purchase his own welding equipment to operate his own business.  David says, “The school has trained me, educated me and changed my street-boy behavior. I am so thankful for this school and my teacher. I can’t describe how to thank my teacher, Emmanuel.”

CarpenterJuvenoli B is a 38 y/o husband and father of five kids who works as a carpenter. He was previously in agriculture, but due to erosion and poor soil, he could not generate enough income to provide for his family, pay rent and send his kids to school. He was accepted into the vocational center and trained in carpentry. He now makes and sells beautiful chairs, headboards, doors and other items.

We were so inspired by these guys, by the teachers, and by our time with Kabuga peeps- it was one of our best couple of days in Rwanda!

Entire photo album is here.

For more info on other grads and/or how to get involved, check out: this page, and the June issue of World Next Door magazine :)

Useless (but funny!) Cultural Knowledge

GorillaIt costs $750 USD to see the gorillas here. The joke in Rwanda is that gorillas make more than the humans. In fact, they say, if the government was asked, Who should we save: the gorillas or the humans? The government would say, The gorillas! They provide more income! When foreigners come to the country and are approached by ministries or NGOs to feed the poor or help the Rwandans, they shake their heads with a sad frown, pull out their empty pockets and say, Sorry! But when you take them to see the gorillas? $750! People will donate any amount of money to help the gorillas! The gorillas require visitors to book an appointment far in advance to see them, and a magnificent naming ceremony is held each year to celebrate new gorillas births and to name each baby. It’s a black-tie event, and celebrities are invited from far and wide. [Brace yourself, I’m jumping tone: This crazy gorilla frenzy in a country where the entire international community packed up and left when humans were being killed. Okay, back to previous lighthearted content] I’ll be honest. I DO wish we could see the gorillas. They’re just so mysterious and wild out there on those volcanoes.

Things women traditionally don’t eat in Rwanda because it is an abomination: chicken and goat. Goat especially, because it will cause facial hair. If a woman is seen with facial hair, people whisper to each other, That one has eaten goat! They tell me women in the Congo eat goat, and that’s why so many of them have beards J.  Chicken used to be a specialty only eaten by village Elders or rich people, and only in private. Chicken is still the most expensive meat today, and women can eat it, but usually only the thigh. Men get the gizzards and breast. Wha?

People here talk about the Congo the way BZ talks about Guatemala and the way we talk about the… wait, who do we talk about? Kentucky? All in good fun, I think. Anyway, things people in the Congo supposedly eat: goats, flies, and snakes. And Rwandans say the Congolese say, If there is meat to be found, we eat it. I do not personally know any Congolese to run this by. Neither do they have people from Kentucky to fact-check whether or not Kentuckians actually marry their first cousins. They do, however, win National Basketball Championships

In which we miss out on 75 BILLION DOLLARS worth of annual labor!

When I think of the phrase Community Service, I picture chain gangs in orange jumpsuits, kids on probation, and/or Lindsay Lohan. I also think of church-wide and campus-wide calls for neighborhood clean-up twice per year and scrunched faces of high school seniors trying to recall any act of community-oriented behavior that might pass for service on college applications.

But what if once per month our entire (adult) nation—all 240 million of us—served our neighborhoods for three hours. You, working on things where you live, and me, working on things where I live. Maybe on my cul-de-sac we weed all the cracks in the sidewalk, and on yours someone edges all the yards. Maybe we trim up our section of the Monon, or dig a little ditch so the water doesn’t pool in neighbor Frisky’s backyard. Maybe you rip out that old lady’s bushes that died 8 years ago (the bushes, not the lady) because they are an eyesore and remain a rusty-colored fire hazard year round. Maybe we all get together and chop up each other’s Christmas trees and then divvy up the firewood?

Pretend it was mandatory, but only sort of.  For example, you wouldn’t go to jail if you didn’t participate, but the social pressure was so high that you could be fired from your job or excluded from social events if you were a known non-attender.  What if this was so important that everything else was closed during the community service hours—gas stations, grocery stores, even Starbucks! No doubt, some people (who are accustomed to individual freedoms that protect against mandates providing for the greater good at individual expense—in this case: time, sweat, convenience and profit) will jump straight to the dangers of socialism and form a political position. No, of course I am not talking about you, silly. I’m talking about those other people. But let’s pretend this stayed purely community-based: entirely organized, monitored and carried out by the community.

It would be called Umuganda.

In Kinyarwanda, the day is called Umunsi w’umuganda, meaning “contribution made by the community” and is designed to be a day of country-building by the citizens themselves. So, on the last Saturday of every month, all able-bodied persons above the age of 18 and below 65 are expected to participate in volunteer community work in their neighborhoods for three hours. The start of this practice goes back to colonial times and is upheld today.

Everything is closed during these three hours, including shops, markets, and public transportation. People are seen everywhere cleaning streets, cutting grass and trimming bushes along roads, repairing public facilities, or building houses for vulnerable persons. People with particular skills offer their services for free on this day.  For example, doctors may offer free medical examination. This, of course, has Jeff and I thinking about offering free Physical Therapy and Counseling services once per month for three hours—could you imagine if we all did this?!

Participation is usually supervised by a manager or neighborhood chairperson who oversees the effectiveness and efficiency of community participation, or who can organize people of a specific need has been identified. Kids are not required to participate, but many times they hang around with their parents (sometimes ON their parents, literally) or play together off to the side, each watching the community work, like these guys:

So freshToddler Umuganda

Here’s the punchline: Rwanda has about 18 million hours of free countrywide community service each month, and about 5 million little eyes watching the community work. Convert that to full-time workers at 40 hours per week and $10/hour? That’s 103,846 full-time workers for the year providing $216 Million USD in labor hours annually- FOR FREE!  Also, 5 million little ones growing up understanding that once a month, it’s normal to pitch in and serve your own community.

The benefits of Umuganda are not merely economic. The day is intended to build community involvement and strengthen cohesion between persons of different background and levels.   One such a benefit is that people can access authorities to articulate their needs and voice opinions on various issues.

The labor cost from Umuganda contributes to national development programs.  By reaping the rewards of the volunteer labor and by having more capital to invest in the country, Umuganda has contributed to the growth and development of Rwanda.

– The Rwanda Governance Board

Now. I know what you might be thinking. These numbers are only true if most people show up. But most people do show up, because you can get fired or excluded in your community if you’re known not to attend, and because these current workers grew up watching their adult community work when they were little. Plus, it’s necessary and valued. In fact, when we crossed rain-distressed roadways or mudslides covering the path last week (Blooke- do you find the load? Do you find how the load has been destroyed by the lain?), people were quick to say, This area here needs Umuganda, and so it would be.

It’s also a time to visit, fellowship and encourage one another, per my plantation friend Eliane. What do you suppose was the method of attendance tracking in our village last Saturday? Word of mouth and penciled names on a folded piece of paper.

Everyone knows on which Saturday Umuganda falls, everyone honors the time, and even as we were trying to work out our own schedules last weekend, everyone was quick to remind us they would not be available Saturday morning because of Umuganda. The only people off the hook are those responsible for umuzungu (white people), because umuzungu are not citizens. We went, though. We wanted to see what it was all about.

Village WorkersWoman Umuganda

Last Saturday, our community was digging a drainage ditch along the side of a remote mountain road to divert the rainwater to the creek and irrigation systems. Other groups weeded the side of the dirt road, packed in potholes they saw along the way, and hacked off overgrown grass along the side. Other villages were putting up stones along the same slopes and roads to prevent mudslides.

Jeff UmugandaDitch

The complete album here:

So, yeah.

Prepare to have your mind blown. If this somehow happened in our country, we would have 720 million man-hours of community service per month. Even if we exclude the over 65’s because they’re all retired and stuff (though you should have seen these Rwandan Grannys rocking their hoes last weekend) we would still have 624 million man-hours of community work per month, 7.48 BILLION labor hours annually!

Here’s the sticker price. At 40 hours per week, it’s the equivalent of 3,900,000 full-time nationwide workers and at $10/hour, that’s almost 75 BILLION dollars worth of community work in our own neighborhoods, schools, roads and parks annually—FOR FREE!


In the meantime, who wants to have a Christmas Tree cutting party at my house?! We’ve got about 3 years worth in the Monon, and then we can move to Frisky’s yard and hack off all his weed-trees. Yes, that sounds good.  I’ll see you on the last Saturday in May.