Sunday, July 22, 2007

Rwandan Diary: Day 2

Another early start for a three hour drive to the southern Rwandan town of Butare. Our first stop was at an orphanage school. We were treated to very enthusiastic singing by the 107 children. Their classroom was the size of one which we would put 15 kids in, rather than 107.

The school is clearly struggling to exist despite its excellent teachers endeavours. They have started making Christmas cards and clothes to create an income stream. Because the school only takes orphans (of the 107 kids, 35 have HIV and 15 are heads of family) there are many local children who don't get the schooling these kids get. It was quite heart rending to see the other kids looking at us through the school fence.

Next stop was a nearby village which Project Umubano is helping by providing English teaching and helping with the re-roofing of a rabbit breeding enterprise. I have to admit I thought this was the poorest place I had ever seen in my life, yet one of the lobby journalists reckons there are far worse off places than this. There are very few roads in Rwanda. Virtually every village is reached by treacherous dirt tracks in a sturdy 4x4. The picture to the left shows the main street and the houses, which are made of local peat. As you can see, 18 Doughty Street's Alice became the village pied piper as all the local kids wanted to be captured on film. The look on their faces when she shows them the film and they can see themselves is a sight to behold. Just off to the right of this photo a man beckoned me over. He was holding a large jug, which contained the local beer, and invited me into his home. His house consisted of two rooms, one with a table and one chair and two posters on the walls and nothing else. No carpet, no other furniture, nothing. But I have rarely met a happier man. And that's the common theme. The people we meet are unfailingly happy despite the abject poverty they live in and their country's troubled recent past. Everywhere you go you meet happy, smiling people. They may be hiding deep sadness underneath, but they hide it very well indeed. None of the houses in this village have toilets, but several outside latrines are being built at the moment.

Each one is shared by five families at a cost of £170 each. I was given the honour of christening one of them. One of the journalists asked if I had brought a plaque. Ha ha. The rabbit breeding project is one which the Tory team in helping develop. The rabbits are meant to provide an income for the village. At first the villagers just treated the rabbits as food, but they are now trying to make it into a proper business. The roof needed to be replaced because the rabbits were getting too hot and not eating.

The picture on the right shows a couple of workers tending to their allotment. Even though Rwanda is incredibly hilly, virtually every acre has some sort of crop planted in it. Even so, in the rural areas there is still a degree of malnutrition.

We then drove for an hour on an incredibly bumpy dirt track to a village which doesn't even feature on a map. It's where two British GPs (one of whom is Andrew Mitchell's wife Sharon) are spending two weeks treating local people. We were warned that we would be crossing the 'Bridge of Death', which was a very rickety bridge with wooden slats. As we were in a Toyota 4x4 I didn't give much for our chances of getting across and wanted to get out and walk across. The driver wasn't having any of it and put his foot down. Well, we made it, although I am sure we dislodged a few slats while we were at it. The medical centre in the village is run by a group of nuns, but none of them have medical training. If I tell you there are only 400 doctors in Rwanda which equates to one doctor per 200,000 people. In Britain we have one GP per 2000 people. The task of the two British GPs is to train some local nurses and while they are there treat as many people as possible. In the first 5 days they treated more than 500 people. Word soon spread that they were there and they had to turn people away. Most people could be treated easily but there were at least three cases where I am sure they saved the people's lives. The nearest hospital is a four hour walk away. There is no other way of getting there. If anyone breaks their leg or physically cannot walk, they are reliant on neighbours to carry them there on a stretcher. And when they get there they have to provide their own bed linen and food. Makes you think, doesn't it? At the medical centre there are a number of inpatient wards including ones for TB sufferers, a maternity ward and one for those suffering from malnutrition.

It is this project which has affected me most so far. The sheer hopelessness of the situation is appalling. Sharon and David, the two GPs, will leave at the end of next week knowing that they have probably saved lives. But if they were there for the next two weeks they would be able to do the same. But they will leave a lasting legacy in the training they will have supplied to the nuns and other nursing staff. And they should be bloody proud of what they have done.

The running theme of the day was me thinking 'what can I, as an individual, do to make these people's lives better'? Now that probably sounds as if I have suddenly become a woolly liberal. Not a bit of it. But it is amazing how much very little money will buy here. And at the end of it, it is well directed money which these communities need - money which if it comes through government agencies might never get to where it is most needed.

When I was at the first orphanage I did something which later I thought was incredibly crass. I gave the head teacher $50 to spend on provisions for the school. I just felt it was the only way I could show him that I was so impressed by what he was doing. I refuse to give money to charities who spend a vast proportion of it on admin. I want to give money directly, to an organisation I care about and where I know the money won't be wasted.

Anyway, that was day 2.


pxcentric said...

I enjoyed this post.

As you write "everywhere you go you meet happy, smiling people", may I suggest, very gently, that perhaps we could all learn something from the people you are meeting?

Ted Foan said...

Well observed, Iain. Your point about money that goes through government agencies is unlikely to get to the people who need it is well made and, unfortunately one of the key problems in many parts of Africa and other parts of the world that are similarly afflicted.

Human life is not as highly valued as it in in the West. There are many reasons for this: culture, history, tribal rivalries and corrupt politicians, to name but a few. What we can't do is try to impose our solutions on these peoples.

I look forward to more reports from you.

Hughes Views said...

"I refuse to give money to charities who spend a vast proportion of it on admin"

What is it with you Tory boys and admin? Every efficient organisation larger than a whelk-stall needs good, cost-effective administration. It's a necessity not an evil. Without it highly skilled / paid professional staff end up wasting their time on tasks that they're ill equipped to deal with efficiently.

You shouldn't have doctors writing cheques to pay the hospital's electricity bills you know nor front-line charity staff administering the funds they need...

chatterbox said...

An excellent article and I look forward to your next one. You make some interesting points about large charities and admin and I must admit that these days my donations go to Mary's wheels and Medecins Sans Frontieres for the reasons you highlight in the report.

Antony said...

A brilliant blog post Iain ... it should make some of those who have attacked this project think again. Shame on them - keep on blogging!

Ted Foan said...

"hughes views" - you have (deliberately?) missed the point. Iain was talking about a "vast proportion of (its money)" being spent on administration.

Yep, we all know that good admin is essential but if it's more than 2p or 4p in the £ then we have to ask what's happening to the rest of out contribution. Nothing to do with a being a "Tory boy" - just reasonable scepticism and good practice.

I'm surprised you can be bothered to make a partisan political point about something which is so self-evident. But, hey, this is your place too! Thank God we have free speech - for the moment?

Newmania said...

BOB MONKHOUSE- " They laughed when I said I would be a comedian...Well they`re not laughing now !"

Just thought I `d cheer up this dismal Stingish bleeding-heartothon. Charity has achieved nothing except for Bob Geldof`s bank balance. What exactly is the point here ?

Newmania said...

What is it with you Tory boys and admin?

The epic waste in the public sector which we pay for by working hard and efficiently in the private sector. You should take the Telly Tubbies DVD out and follow politics its ever so interesting....(and charities are even worse )

Ted Foan said...

newmania - just thought I'd try to appear as erudite as you!

Excellent blog about the Playgound, by the way!

Wrinkled Weasel said...

Thank you for this very informative and moving piece.

There is nothing like stark reality when it comes to confronting our prejudices.

If you are serious about giving to a small charity with very similar projects to those you have encountered, go to

Among other things, they provide chickens for people whose families are ravaged by HIV/AIDS. In a very small way and in a way that even I can appreciate, these chickens provide eggs for hungry kids whose parents are unable to work. Its not mindblowing, but as you have observed, little gestures can save lives over there.

best wishes


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