I joined Partners For Conservation for my short study break between February 28th to March 12th 2019. What I found on the field is beyond what I was expecting. Thank you Volunteer World for connecting me with Partners For Conservation.
First Impressions and Aims
During my short study break from university in Stockholm (Sweden), I decided that in order to make worth of my free time I would like to volunteer and put my current Business and Management skills to use while developing them further. When I came across Partners for Conservation online it seemed like the perfect place to do so – a fantastic philosophy in an amazing location where I can be a real part of aiding and educating communities. After speaking to Emmanuel I felt immediately welcome to join Partners for Conservation and it felt like the right thing to do for me. PFC’s combination of socio-cultural development, sharing of ideas and project management is one that goes far to help issues that less privileged communities face. I was especially impressed and interested in projects such as Women’s Menstruation Health Management, recognising that education on this topic can drastically improve the well being of local women. The experience will be totally new and unexpected for me, but I am motivated by challenge and I learn best when my comfort zone is stretched. I hope to return from Rwanda having learned about the local culture and communities, the issues that they face and ways to help overcome this. Of course, I also help to come home a more confident, grateful and culturally experienced individual.
Arrival and the Tour Du Rwanda Concert
Upon arriving at the office on Thursday I was greeted with a warm welcome and introduction from Emmanuel, Nicole and Aimable. We went through my plan for the 2 weeks that I am here and this gave me an insight into what I’ll be getting involved with – through this I hope to gain both administration experience in the office and a more social and practical experience on the field. Later on in the afternoon Emmanuel took us to the Tour Du Rwanda concert in Musanze and we were lucky enough to go backstage to watch it all! The event, powered by the Global Livingstone Institute, sets out to combine culture, music and health awareness. In doing this it provides an evening of amazing entertainment with health screening for life changing issues such as HIV. It was great to meet like-minded people who collaborate in order to bring such a fun event with a truly amazing message of awareness to areas like this. It’s fair to say that it was an unforgettable way to start my time here in Musanze.
On Friday I joined Emmanuel and Nicole to visit Ruhehe School in the Musanze District in order to gain an aspect of the type of education that Partners For Conservation puts forward. I was delighted to see that the school has an environment society whereby students lead action and discussion – incorporating this into the everyday school life allows the students to feel a part of something that is making a difference. We sat with a group of students and discussed their efforts so far before they asked me several questions about my motivations for being in Rwanda, they all seemed very interested in what I had to say which is a lovely attribute. I can only be amazed at the students’ behaviour compared to that of my secondary school! One student asked a question that got me thinking – ‘Do you plant trees like us in your local community?’ Although I explained that planting trees is not something I have been a part of before, I told them that some bigger companies do in fact make efforts to replace what they use in this sense. This led me to the realisation that although we are very aware of environmental change in the UK, we sometimes assume sole individuals are unlikely to be able to help and thus relying on bigger organisations and government. I felt a sense of guilt that my efforts only stretched as far as attempting to reduce my waste and recycling – and this is a lesson that I will take home with me. After our discussion the geography teacher and the leader of the environment society proceeded to show me the area in which they have planted 40 trees and explained where they are planning to plant more. It was great to see that the group leader was wearing a ‘Plant-for-the-Planet’ t-shirt – an organisation that raises awareness of environmental issues in school aged children and empowers them to act upon these.
On Monday Nicole and I visited a Turwanyubekene community in Kabagorozi where Partners For Conservation help to teach residents how to read. Their project is one that seeks to overcome adult illiteracy, which is undoubtedly a huge barrier to many economic benefits. It’s fair to say that their lifestyle is saddening and very eye opening – babies crawling in mud and children wearing dirty or broken clothes is something that is hard to watch. However the dynamic of the people is highly interesting, the community is isolated and rely heavily on traditional and inherited ways of life – often creating families within families and truly cherishing their roots. The visit and PFC’s educational and social support to the community perfectly outlines the vision of PFC – whereby they act as partners for development instead of solely short term providers of things such as money and food. Nicole seemed to have an excellent relationship with the women, especially Mukeshimana and Dative which is a priceless thing to have and sustain – having an emotional impact on their lives. They seemed very excited to see us, which proves the important social side of the partnership, and not just a materialistic one. Because PFC is a local organisation the individuals do not feel alienated or so vastly different than they may do from a more global one, which is fantastic.
The day after, Nicole and I travelled back to Kansoro but visited another community with similar living conditions. Partners For Conservation has recently taught approximately 50 women there how to make reusable sanitary pads and in general have shed a light on the issue that can be described as somewhat taboo. Although Kabibi, who we were firstly speaking to, had not used hers yet she expressed her happiness for them and Nicole explained to me how they were made. It’s great seeing such a simple idea make huge social and practical improvements. Not only do the pads serve a hygiene purpose but also an economic and environmental one – if women were to buy disposable pads they would massively benefit from this solution that lasts around two years, and the waste of these disposable pads is eliminated. After chatting with Emmanuel later on in the week, he was telling me about ways to progress with this by supplying sewing machines to women. I really do think this would be an excellent motivator for them, and would enable them to develop a skill that can be applied to numerous activities and ways of becoming more economically stable. On the way back from the community we visited Collette who is a partner for teaching these women to read, and so she is a large part of their progress there.
Due to Partners For Conservation’s current project with a community in the Shingiro Sector, we took a visit there to see the group of 25 women that have been taught how to make woven baskets and mats. After just about surviving the rocky drive there, I was amazed to see the work that they are producing. Most of the women in the group are widows which means the social aspect of the project is truly valuable to them – problem sharing, close-knit company and a sense of achievement. The project aims to empower historically marginalised women through development of practical skills and knowledge, in order to make an income. Not only does the project enable the women to advance in terms of economic factors, but also the materials used for the weaving are reused items such as soil transportation bags. Like PFC’s other projects, this one truly sets out for long term goals and improvement whereby women can teach others and younger generations – thus growing the economic benefits.
Igiceri Womens Co-operative
Just in time for International Womens Day on 8th March, we attended a meeting of the IGICERI WOMENS Co-operative in Musanze. A sea of colour welcomed me and of course some amazing singing and dancing. The group has around 200 women involved, which is absolutely fantastic, and it acts as an arena for individual funding, small loans and a helping hand for affected women. Just recently, approximately 80 mattresses were given to women who needed them and therefore massively improved the quality of life for women within the group. Right now the co-operative has around 150,000frw accumulated and saved from women within, and 150,000frw has been used as small loans for those in need. It was so great to see women of an older age come together to help within their own community, and each and every one of them showed such passion and care. The thought for others and vision of a collective future teaches a valuable lesson to other communities, one that seeks to share and collaborate to build a brighter future for women. The women of the co-operative were inspiring, especially for International Women’s day, because of their genuine passion and positive vision for the long term goals of Musanze. Every one of them is a valuable part of the community.
Social and Cultural Observations
A large part of what I have learnt about the social and cultural norms in Rwanda is that communities are based on strong relationships and trust. Unlike in the UK where there are huge social and attitude related gaps between socio-economic classes, in Rwanda it seems that class does not affect inter-personal interaction as much as I am used to at home. For example, when visiting marginalised and very poor communities the interaction between Nicole and the residents felt close and familiar – the difference in background and economic class did not affect the ability to communicate and build a strong bond. Of course this observation is complimented by the truly wonderful personalities and traits of Rwandan people in general – welcoming, kind and gentle. I can only be amazed at the positive outlook on life that Rwandans seem to have, and it has inspired me to strive to adopt this trait.
The benefit of a reasonably small and local organisation like Partners for Conservation is the sense of family and authenticity. The true goals and vision of PFC are not lost within a huge organisation which means projects and partnerships remain genuine to the people they affect the most. Because of this my experience felt unique and individual to me, which is exactly what I was looking for.
My experience in Rwanda, both on and off the field, in the office and in my free time has taught me such valuable lessons about both the social and economic situations of Rwanda – from human pressures on the Volcanoes National Park to the surprising family values of remote communities. Being with Partners for Conservation has been an eye opening experience that has inspired me with thoughts for future conservation in the country, and given me a true insight into the fantastic effects that current projects are having on Rwandan communities. Of course my experience has taught me lessons about myself too and has acted as a lesson, teaching me ways to be better in my own life – to be more grateful, humble, giving and always think about how my actions affect others. Partners For Conservation is an incredible and close-knit organisation that acts as a catalyst for change in its local communities – the term ‘partners’ is a perfect representation!
Thank you Emmanuel for your kindness, outstanding hospitality and inspiring passion for what you do. Thank you Nicole for making me feel so comfortable and for being a great friend, and thank you Aimable for your infectious laugh and smile! I hope to see you all again one day.