My counterpart approached me recently and asked if I would be interested in heading out to the field to see some of the work our organization does in action. I immediately said “YES!” I was told that it was not that far away geographically, but that it would take some time to get there. Given the fact that we live in the land of 1,000 hills, this didn’t surprise me in the least bit. However, once we turned off the dirt road to head up the side of a “mountain” it quickly became apparent why this would take so long.
Anyone who has driven up a mountain, hill, or hiked to elevation knows that roads and trails are full of switchbacks and winding turns. It is like that here as well, except that the roads are usually not paved. It is a very expensive undertaking to pave the roads and they would most likely require constant maintenance due to the weather. The hills here are very steep and, with heavy rainfall, the earth becomes very susceptible to landslides. What I thought was going to be a 30-45 minute ride turned into a two-hour drive. While it exposed me to gorgeous landscapes, it also reminded me of the harsh realities that some Rwandese face and the reason that my organization exists.
As I mentioned in my first blog post about my Rwanda assignment, I am serving for one year as an Environmental Health Project Design, Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist with Les Compagnons Fontainiers du Rwanda (COFORWA), an organization focusing primarily on Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) extension projects in the Muhanga District of Rwanda.
As we arrived at the top of a hill, we met with some local families that are beneficiaries of the extension efforts from COFORWA. They excitedly showed off their new cookstove, some keyhole kitchen gardens, EcoSan toilets, rainwater collection tanks, and an area used for composting.
I had been aware that these various types of technology were all in place and, truthfully, they are not limited to Rwanda, the region of East Africa, or the African continent alone. However, what struck me was how dry things had become (quickly) and how much of a struggle it is for farmers to continue to provide for their families during the two dry seasons that Rwanda has every year. With the absence of the technology that I am used to seeing elsewhere, I was simultaneously amazed at:
What people are able to achieve, and
Opportunities for improvement still remain
In the Peace Corps organization, each region of the world typically specializes in a particular type of training for PC volunteers to implement at their sites. In East Africa – well actually, in the whole Sub-Saharan region including Madagascar – the focus is on implementing small-scale Permaculture projects for multiple reasons:
- Malnutrition is a serious issue here.
- The countries are predominantly agricultural-based societies.
- Typically, the projects can be completed in a day.
- The majority of the fertilizer and soil is readily available so these projects have little to no cost (except for the initial seeds).
- The results can provide nutrient rich vegetables directly from garden to table.
- Permaculture projects significantly decrease post-harvest crop loss (according to PYXERA Global, 40% of crops in Sub-Saharan Africa never make it to market), and potentially can become income-generating operations for women in developing countries.
I was lucky to be invited to attend Permaculture training for the newest group of Community Health Peace Corps trainees in Rwanda focusing on creating a “permagarden.” I was able to experience first-hand how incredibly simple yet back-breaking a permagarden can be to implement. Peter Jensen, the Food Security and Permagarden Specialist for Peace Corps came to Rwanda to provide a training which covered the science behind soil composition, how to effectively compost, and then how to design a garden in a way to effectively collect and control the water flow to maximize its use.
Why is controlling the water flow so important? Well, most countries in Africa experience significant periods of drought along with long periods of rain. For example, I have not seen rain in my town in almost 3 months – it just simply stopped one day. The number of hills and valleys in this country make the somewhat simple solution of a community water reservoir for water collection extremely difficult or unrealistic. As some of the pictures in my previous two posts showed, the majority of the country is rural, far from any main roads, and most of the inhabitants are 100% reliant on rainwater collection methods for their families. The method we learned was how to dig deep into the soil, release the nutrients in the clay layer just below the surface, create new top soil, and then dig water collection holes to saturate the area during the rainy season and create a natural underground storage system that requires only periodic support – even in the dry seasons.
With this new knowledge in hand and about three months of observation in Rwanda, I have narrowed down my focus to some project ideas that I would like initiate. Admittedly, they are ambitious and aggressive, but they are also quite doable. Most importantly, as long as we have the framework written out, none of these projects will require my presence in country in order to succeed. COFORWA is blessed with many skilled technicians and experts who know how to implement project ideas and install the infrastructure that might be required.
For now, I am trying to develop the framework to address the following:
- WaSH/Nutrition/Permaculture/Small-Scale Irrigation
- Malaria Education coupled with Maternal and Childhood Nutrition
- Environmental Protection – Cookstoves/Renewable Energy
All of this, as well as my involvement on the Peace Corps Program Advisory Committee and revising CORFORWA’s grant applications keep my days consistently full and I couldn’t be happier. I definitely have a decent amount resting on my plate right now, but it is all starting to come together nicely. I also recognize that I am very lucky to be in my current situation. One of the biggest obstacles volunteers sometimes face on a regular basis is a lack of stimulation. That is not by any means to say that our lives or communities are boring, it is just that we often times don’t know what past times are available locally until someone tells us.
Engaging with the Peace Corps Volunteer community in Rwanda (as I did in Ukraine) is something I have thoroughly enjoyed from Day One and I hope to continue to do so throughout my time here. Well, that and attempt to learn Kinyarwanda and French simultaneously…they are both coming along…slowly.
This has been a great first three months and I cannot wait to see what happens in the next nine. Until then, as they say here in Rwanda, “buhoro, buhoro” or “little by little.”