In February it was my privilege to visit Africa - the wonderful country of Rwanda. Th e visit was organised by ‘Compassion UK ‘- a worldwide Christian based charity. Compassion works in 26 countries and strives to free children from poverty by supporting vulnerable children through individual sponsorship. This breaks the cycle of poverty, replacing it with hope for the future.
I travelled with twenty other UK based sponsors from Heathrow via Amsterdam to Kigali - the capital of Rwanda. Rwanda is a land locked country surrounded by Burundi, Democratic Congo, Uganda and Tanzania. It is densely populated, much smaller than the UK, and known as “Th e Land of 1,000 Hills”. Being on the equator, it benefits from having a very comfortable average climate of about 250C to 300C, which we found just right for February!
Kigali is a modern, clean, bustling city - the centre for commerce, hotels and offices. It is also the home of the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. This is the man who brought peace to Rwanda in 1994 following the terrible genocide, where nearly one million people died in a period of ten weeks.
During our eight-day visit we travelled to various areas of Rwanda to the projects that Compassion is involved with. Once we were out of the vicinity of Kigali we experienced a very different Rwanda. The tarmac covered roads gave way to vivid orange dirt tracks winding through hilly green farmland. Small huts and houses broke up the route; the more expensive were made from concrete, the less expensive from tree branches covered in mud. Both types of houses had roofs of single thickness corrugated steel, which is required so that rainwater can be collected. Both types of houses had dirt floors, one electric power point, no water, no internal plumbing of any kind and no cooking facilities. It is in such houses that extreme poverty exists - and this is where Compassion gets involved.
During the visit it was inevitable we drew comparisons with life in Barrow. The main streets in the Rwandan villages are bustling with activity with many street traders attempting to sell their produce including bananas, cassava, sweet corn and clothing. To reduce environmental contamination, plastic bags are not allowed in Rwanda. The Rwandan people have a huge desire to improve their country and to keep it tidy. Drinking in the streets is frowned upon and very few empty cans are seen, so litter is vastly reduced. In fact every month a special day, normally a Saturday, called ‘Umuganda’ is set aside for the population to do some kind of community work; litter picking, painting, trimming trees and sweeping up.
Pedal bicycles are used in vast numbers to transport precarious loads of bananas, coffee berries, sacks of cereal and water. When the morning chores are done cyclists put padded seats on their bikes and they are converted into taxis with distances of nearly 100 miles per day pedaled by the taxi cyclists - a good way to stay fit.
Water is scarce in Rwanda. Mains-water is collected from standpipes, which can sometimes be a few miles away, but this water is not clean. Water-borne diseases are commonplace in the more rural areas, as is malaria. Compassion helps in this area by getting involved in water-treatment and sanitation projects. We saw such a project in a very rural village close to the border with Tanzania. The highlight of the trip was meeting our sponsored children and getting to know them better.
The people of Rwanda that we met, although very poor, were very hospitable, very cheerful, and very genuine. The children that we met had a strong desire to do well in whatever education they had - they were attentive, well behaved and well mannered. They see education as being a fundamental way of improving their lives and for building a better future. Many Rwandans live with the memory of seeing their families slaughtered in the genocide of 1994, but we experienced a strong sense of them wanting to build a new life, a new Rwanda. Th e trip was a roller- coaster of emotions for all of us and one that I will never forget.