The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Milk, manure and manners

Ngoma district, where I work in SE Rwanda, is divided into 14 sectors and it is one of my jobs to try to organise head teacher training in all of them. School planning, teaching/learning objectives and assessment/evaluation procedures are just some of the areas needing attention. It is a tough job to set up these meetings as few of the head teachers have email and the majority don't seem to be confident in replying to my painstakingly long text messages in French and English. Talking on the phone can be frustrating too as there are over 70 head teachers in the district and they may not know who I am. Trying to explain the purpose of the training sessions over a fuzzy line in different languages can be challenging to say the least. I can also wait for them to come into the office, which they do from time to time, but it is a pretty random way to organise things especially if I don't know what they look like and they don't introduce themselves. Or, I can jump on a moto to pay them a visit. However, it is costly taking motos all the time. It is probably the biggest collective expense that VSO has, taking into account the, nearly, 50 volunteers currently in the country.
Market with usual bricks in Rukira sector
So, it was great to hook up with a Canadian project which is currently operating in the district and hop on a bus they had booked to visit different offices in one of the more remote sectors. There I hoped to meet some teachers as well as the sector Chargé des Affaires Sociales who is supposed to assist the head teachers with school matters. I was also going to take part in a student study project inquiring how sector farmers had benefited by being given a cow as part of the government's girinka (one cow per family) programme. A long questionnaire was developed by the Canadian researcher and each student, who was with us on the bus, was to be allocated a farmer (known as a 'beneficiary') to ask a series of questions about how much milk the cow had produced, health issues it had had and, very importantly, how much manure it had produced and what it was being used for. There is a bio-diesel factory outside Kigali and I was told that part of the girinka project is to encourage farmers to sell the cow dung to the factory where the slurry is fed into a digester producing methane for the market. The problem, of course, is how a small-scale farmer gets the manure to Kigali and whether the quantity is enough to justify the transportation costs. Maybe, in time-honoured simplicity, it is better to put the dung on the soil to improve local land productivity without the need for artificial fertilisers.
Student with farmer 'beneficiary' doing questionnaire
In a sense, this issue is part of the Rwandan dilemma defined through the land consolidation programme which seeks to concentrate production of certain commodities in geographically defined districts - bananas here in the east, maize in the valleys, manioc in the west, potatoes up north etc - for greater output which can then theoretically be exported for much needed revenue. This is a small subsistence economy with big market aspirations. The only problem is that already there is a surplus of potatoes, tomatoes and bananas with limited opportunities for use. Even with a convoy of lorries moving freight on the good, main road system it is unclear where the markets would be. There is also the problem of escalating fuel costs causing big hikes in transported basic foodstuffs and this has been the cause of major social disturbances in the Ugandan and Kenyan capitals. It is not a problem yet in this tightly controlled society although imported goods like sugar and rice both went up in price by 30% recently.
Students interviewing farmers in front of 'cell' office
The government's long-term desire is to add value to the primary produce by creating a manufacturing industry in different parts of the country. It's all part of the plan to make Rwanda a middle-income nation by 2020. Are there any investors reading this who'd like to build a tinned tomato plant in Kibungo? Didn't think so. I heard on the BBC World Service the other day that, in the whole of Ethiopia, there are only five manufacturing industries which employ around 500 people - out of a population of 82 million! But, of course, the template for economic development in Africa is the same as elsewhere with all of its pluses and minuses. The desire is to create a middle class with an expendable income for the purchase of the sort of consumer goods that we, in the west, take for granted. Kigali is already that in microcosm. Perhaps it's easy from my comfort zone to worry about the extreme city/rural income divide being perpetuated in African countries but equitable development models are very hard to come by in a world run by large multinationals looking for quick profits with minimum inconvenience and maximum tax advantage. Kigali is setting itself up to attract foreign investment in a big way and is going to be a bit more appealing than a place like Kibungo as a centre for development.
Excited primary pupils line up to greet me
Meanwhile back in isolated Rukira sector a group of primary students lined up on an embankment to welcome me, chanting in unison 'it is very fine to see you', the first time I'd heard that particular refrain. This was followed by one little squib asking the customary 'how old are?' When I gave my usual weak response of '25', one child piped up, 'you are a liar.' My mum would have had that youngster's mouth washed out in soapy water but like 'give me chalk' instead of 'please may I have some chalk' it is simply a translation of what is said in Kinyarwanda with none of the polite locutions that we require in English. I'm going to empty my pockets for the next beggar who stops me in the street and says, ' would you mind giving me some money?' If they can set up courses in English for Accounting Purposes nowadays then why not ERB - English for Refined Beggars.
Ankole cow - long on horn but low on milk
I'm expecting to hear the results of the questionnaire very soon so I'll keep you posted. I'm sure that Rwandan milk production and manure uses have you riveted. I can, however, give you a little advance taster. Did you know that an East African Ankole long-horned cow produces five litres of milk a day whereas a Friesian produces 25? So, think about that next time you're adding it to your moo-sli.
Children gather near our mini-bus for the event of the season
You will also be pleased to know that I was able to meet one head teacher and, briefly, the Chargé during the visit. This led to a very successful training session in Rukira the following week. Which just goes to prove the wisdom of many Rwandan cow-related proverbs including this one: 'ubonye ifambire agira amahirwe' - 'he who finds good dung, will find good luck.'


  1. Hi Denis, Just thought I'd let you know I'm part of the silent majority enjoying your African adventures from our suburban offices. I love reading your blog even though it exacerbates the itchy feet syndrome! Numby

  2. Thanks so much Numby and great to hear from you. Best wishes, Denis