Sunday, 31 March 2013

Rwanda's Tea of Hope

On the road to Kitabi/Veronique Mistiaen

Etienne, the young agronomist who drives me around Rwanda is full of hope.  I am in the country to look at how the tea industry is helping rebuild the economy and healing genocidal wounds, and Etienne is one of the experts accompanying me on the trip.

I love this assignment because Rwanda is one of the most exhilaratingly beautiful countries I know, and also because the mood is so much more positive than when I was last there some ten years ago.  At the time, the country was still in shock and deeply scarred by the 1994 genocide in which nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered by Hutu soldiers and militia. Now the country has one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, a Parliament with a majority of women and a strong focus on health and education.

“Not just in Kigali (the capital), but also in the rural areas, life has started again. We would never have thought it could be possible,” Etienne says. “We used to be the country of a thousand problems; now we are the country of a thousand solutions.”  

Kitabi tea gardens/Veronique Mistiaen

We have now reached the Kitabi tea gardens – the highest in Rwanda and perhaps in the world.  Hills after hills are covered in a dense carpet of tender green and the breeze smells of fresh apples. Bordering the gardens is the vast Nyungwe National Park, one of Africa’s largest and oldest virgin equatorial forests –a refuge for chimpanzees, hundreds of species of birds and trees and myriad exotic flowers. And beyond the impenetrable forest lies an immense inland sea - Lake Kivu.

On the roller-coast road from Butare (the second city in Rwanda) to Kitabi, which tumbled through lush banana fields, patches of silvery eucalyptus and red earth, Etienne kept pointing excitedly: “Look, all the huts now have tin roofs. You won’t see thatched roofs in Rwanda any longer.”  Or  “Look, everyone is wearing shoes. No one is walking barefoot any longer.”  And he says that every family in the countryside has received a cow so that its milk can feed the children and its droppings can fertilize the soil. These policies were devised by president Kagame to help lift the countryside out of poverty and foster peace and reconciliation, he explains.

 I know that not everyone shares Etienne’s enthusiasm for Kagame’s governing style, which some call dictatorial. And the sprawling refugee camp we passed on the way reminds us of the savage conflicts at the border, which Kagame has been accused of inflaming.  But I am in Rwanda to look at tea and there, the government’s work with tea owners, NGOs and even the British company Taylors of Harrogate, has been successful. 

Tea is vital in this hilly, densely populated country where about 90% of the inhabitants live in the countryside. Rwandan tea is cultivated on steep slopes at high altitude on an acidic soil where little else grows, so it is the only source of revenues for many farmers and their families.   The crop is now the country’s fourth biggest export after tourism, minerals and coffee. Last year, it earned the country $59m and provided jobs for some 100,000 families, according to the agriculture department. And prosperity helps maintain peace.

With Etienne at the Kitabi tea gardens

One of the causes of war is poverty – on top of social inequalities, says Ndambe Nzaramba of the National Agricultural Export Development Board.  “The government cannot help someone with a head full of images - that is the job of doctors and psychologists - but it can help you put food on the table, give you an education and give you hope. Orphans and victims are more likely to forgive if they are not hurting financially.” 

But even more important than boosting people’s income, the tea gardens are helping people to learn to live alongside one another again, explains Dr Nzaramba.  “Farmers are organized in cooperatives, so innocent and guilty, victim and killer work alongside each others all day long in the fields and in the factories. They to talk, they share the same problems, they plan together, they work for the good of the cooperative – and that’s how the healing happens.”

Read my story about tea and hope in the April issue of Reader’s Digest here.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Peace-building course in Rwanda helps next generation learn from the past

Ceremony at the Kigali's Genocide Memorial/courtesy of the Aegis Trust

On a recent reporting trip to Rwanda, I spent a day at the Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Centre. It is a harrowing and moving place of remembrance and learning for Rwandans and international visitors, built on the mass graves of 250,000 people killed there during the genocide.
I had first visited the Genocide Memorial in April 2004 for its inauguration and events marking the 10th anniversary of the 1994 genocide during which Hutus soldiers and militias killed nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The country was still in ruins and the scars of the genocide were visible everywhere. Survivors told me horrific stories and I was wondering how they would ever manage to heal and go on living. I thought the country would never recover from something like that.

But 19 after the genocide, the country is recovering. Rwanda's is the fastest-growing economy in Africa. Its infrastructure is rapidly expanding and so is access to health and education. The government has adopted policies of peace and reconciliation, encouraging people to leave behind their divisive ethnic identities and think themselves simply as Rwandans. The perpetrators have been tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, and in the Gacaca courts, the traditional village courts in Rwanda.  You can see convicts in pink jumpsuits all over the country, toiling in the fields and on the roadsides, working for the public good, and that helps the nation to mend.
On the surface, Rwanda is healing and has moved on from its terrible past.  But at the Genocide Memorial, I was told there are worrying signs that children who were not even born during the genocide are perpetuating the ethnic prejudices of their parents.
Over 60% of the Rwanda’s population is under the age of 24, so their understanding of the genocide is shaped by their families and communities. “There are resentments and ideologies that children learn from their parents and wider communities, and these feelings pose a threat to long-term stability,” says Dr. James Smith, CEO of the Aegis Trust, the British charity which runs the Genocide Memorial with the Rwandan government.
The organization believes that the next five to ten years are crucial to reach this generation to help safeguard Rwanda against internal strife.  It has designed, alongside the local organization “Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace” (IRDP), a peace-building course where young people who were not born during the genocide or were very young can learn how hatred and prejudice can lead to mass violence and why peace and reconciliation – even when it may seem difficult and at times impossible – is vital for their personal future and that of their country. 

Peace-building course at the Kigali Genocide Memorial/Veronique Mistiaen

This is very important, says Mona Weissmark, Associate Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University Feinberg Medical School and an expert in the inter-generational impact of injustice.  “If left unresolved, the trauma of any atrocity inflicted on an ethnic group is then passed along to the next generation and those in turn lead to entrenched ethnic tensions and group conflicts.”   She is the author of  “Justice Matters: Legacies of the Holocaust and World War II”, which explores the psychology of hatred and ethnic resentments passed from generation to generation.  In the face of unjust treatment, says Weissmark, herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, the natural response is resentment and deep anger - and a desire for revenge. While legal systems offer a structured means for redressing injustice, it often does not redress the emotional pain, which, left unresolved, is then passed along to the next generation - leading to entrenched ethnic tension and group conflict.

I’ve written a piece for the Guardian on the Genocide Memorial’s peace-building programme.  You can read it here.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The quiet humanitarian - interview with Andreas Kamm of the Danish Refugee Council


I’ve interviewed Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) for Development Post, a new development quarterly magazine.  I relished this assignment as I think DRC does a fantastic job and I deeply respect and admire what they do. 

 Fittingly, they have just been names as the world's best humanitarian NGO in 2013 by Global Journal, an American magazine which has analyzed  and compared 450 international NGOs and ranked the top 100. To see the whole list, click here.

DRC was formed to address the European refugee crisis caused by the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Today it works with refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in more than 30 countries, including some of the world’s worst conflict zones and most fragile states, such as Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Chechnya and South Sudan. 

It is an unusual organization as it is formed of 30 member organizations and voluntary groups. They are known for using strategic partnerships to achieve better results and for involving and supporting beneficiaries, local communities and local and national authorities in their humanitarian efforts across the world.

Andreas Kamm/courtesy of RDC
When I asked one of Kamm’s colleagues, Mary B. Anderson, to describe him, she said that what she admired the most in him, aside from his obvious managerial qualities, was his kindness: that he managed to deliver and do his job while remaining deeply caring.  I really liked that and can see this kindness reflected in the values of the organization.

I was fascinated by Kamm’s description of how they find new ideas.  Most of DRC’s innovations, he said, originate in the field where staff working there notice various needs and opportunities. Kamm explained: “the SMS-based complaints system our team in Somalia has developed is a good example. It used to be a slow and problematic process to insure that the aid promised was in fact delivered on the ground. The SMS feedback system is an innovation that has paved the way for accountability and dialogue with aid beneficiaries, as communities and beneficiaries can use SMS, Tweeter and Facebook to lodge complaints, point out problems with distribution of aid or mistakes made by DRC.”  Ideas like that are collected from DRC staff all over the world by the headquarter in Copenhagen, then redistributed to all of their projects.
I also liked his suggesting that the world should do more than just removing dictators.  There are currently about 40 fragile states, such as Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the refugee and IDP problem will keep growing because this number is increasing. “We see a need to do more to support the development of peace and democracy in countries of conflict.  We shouldn’t expect problems to simply disappear when a dictator falls, for example, because they actually tend to grow and create many years of instability," he told me.
And on the impact of climate change:  "There might be as many as 200 million people displaced in 2050 because of climate change. This is a huge challenge and it will lead to conflicts, and thus create even more refugees.  The rich part of the world should be willing to do much more to get down to the root cause of the problem and put more efforts into building fragile states – but it is not an easy task.”
Read my full interview with Andreas Kamm in the spring issues of Development Post.

Friday, 8 March 2013

International Women’s Day – stop violence against women

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day, celebrated all over the world today (8 March) is: “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.”

Commemorations under way across th world are focusing on ending violence against women, which affects up to 7 in 10 women. It occurs in multiple forms in all countries and settings. It impacts women and their communities, hampering development, and also costing countries billions of dollars annually in healthcare costs and lost productivity.

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet stresses that discrimination and violence against women and girls have no place in the 21st century. “Enough is enough”, she says in a message of both outrage and hope that discrimination and violence must end.

To celebrate International Women's Day, the UN is launching its first ever song “One Woman” - a rallying cry to inspires listeners to join the drive for women's rights and gender equality. This musical celebration of women worldwide features 25 artists from across the globe. It reminds us that together, we can overcome violence and discrimination: "We Shall Shine!" 

And now a bit of history:

The United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March during International Women’s Year 1975. Two years later, in December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions.

International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe. Since those early years, International Women’s Day has assumed a new global dimension for women in developed and developing countries alike. The growing international women’s movement, which has been strengthened by four global United Nations women’s conferences, has helped make the commemoration a rallying point to build support for women’s rights and participation in the political and economic arenas.

Increasingly, International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.