With more than one billion people in the world suffering from hunger Trócaire has focused its 2010 Lenten campaign on Rwanda where 84 per cent of the population depends on subsistence farming. The country is also dealing with the legacy of the 1994 genocide in which one million people were slaughtered. Tony Bailie travelled to Rwanda in February 2010 to visit some of the projects Trócaire is involved in
Driving through the hilly countryside of Rwanda reminds you slightly of the drumlins of Ireland but that is were the similarity ends.
The roads are muddy tracks, the crops in the fields are maize and soya – and occasionally banana or coffee bushes – while the scent of eucalyptus and mint hangs in the air. In early February the temperature was 32 degrees.
Kids ran out from their homes to wave, their eyes opening with surprise as they saw my reddening flesh, glowing under the African sun after a long Irish winter, and shouted ‘muzungu’ (white man). Even the adults did a double-take.
On a Friday afternoon I sat in a large room with a group of 40 women in a hilltop village in the south of Rwanda.
They were part of a reconciliation project, funded by Trócaire, and included women who lost their husbands and other members of their family in the 1994 genocide in which one million people died.
Other women in the same group were left to fend for themselves and their children because their husbands were in prison for taking part in the genocide.
Mukamana’s husband was convicted under one of the ‘Gacaca’ courts (traditionally local forums to resolve disputes between neighbours) which were set up in the wake of the genocide.
His neighbour accused him of being part of a mob which used machetes to slaughter a child.
Other members of the mob who confessed said Mukamana’s husband had been with them and he was found with the child’s watch. However, he denied taking part and said he had been at home when the attack took part.
Mukamana told the court that he had not been at home and her husband now blames her for his being in prison.
He was sentenced to 19 years but his wife fears his release because under the country’s laws she will not be allowed to refuse him coming into her home.
She sat to have her picture taken beside a spritely 64-year-old called Cancilda whose husband and son were both killed during the genocide.
She was not sure how or when they died, although she suspects that a neighbour who had been “like a father” to her son and with whom he was hiding may have betrayed him to the marauding Interahamwe (the Hutu paramilitary gang which turned on their Tutsi neighbours and moderate Hutus who refused to take part in the killing).
Cancilda fled her home and made the 40km journey by foot to Burundi as the genocide gathered pace. She said she saw many people being killed and was in constant fear of her life.
She told me: “There was killing everywhere. I could see people being killed and thrown into rivers. We were drinking water mixed with blood”.
While reconciliation between women such as Cancilda and Mukamana is inspiring, and there are many similar examples, there are others who have refused and there is still a tangible tension bubbling under the surface everywhere you go in Rwanda.
Against this backdrop is widespread poverty with most people in rural areas depending on subsistence farming.
Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa and the pressure on land is intense. Overproduction means that each year it is losing the soil capacity to feed 40,000 people while the population continues to grow.
I met several families who were dependent on the land they farmed to feed themselves. Trócaire-funded projects have encouraged them to introduce crop rotation and terraced fields to improve irrigation and help prevent soil erosion, but a poor crop will inevitably mean hunger.
During a visit to one family I saw a filthy child tottering aimlessly around their yard, his belly distended, eyes glazed and a layer of dried mucus along its upper lip.
While the family I was visiting were obviously poor their children were bright-eyed and excited at the ‘muzungu’ visiting their home, but this wee one plodded aimlessly about the place and stared blankly. A Trócaire worker took one look and said he was suffering from malnutrition.
The woman of the household said he was a neighbour’s child called Dani and was aged two (the child she was holding was also two and the difference in their physical health was stark).
She said Dani’s father had stolen money and abandoned his wife and seven children. Dani’s mother was unable to work because she had to look after her children.
When I asked the woman if she thought Dani would live she sighed and shrugged. It was not a heartless gesture for she was clearly struggling to feed her own family, but it suggested an inevitability and there was helplessness in her face.