Way out West

I spent Mon-Fri last week on a VSO story gathering visit around N’yamasheke and Rusizi in the south-west, two of the most remote and poorest districts in Rwanda.

All in all it was a fascinating experience. For starters the landscape is stunning. A new road, completed only last year, winds round increasingly imposing hills on the way there, offering impressive views of Lake Kivu, a huge body of water that forms much of the Western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tea as far as the eye can see

The increasingly steep hillsides are clad in endless tea, with outcrops of banana palm, sugar cane and pine and eucalyptus forest . Everything is so GREEN. The vast majority of people here live from agriculture, either as wage labourers on other people’s land or tending their own small plot for subsistence. A few richer families have larger plots that they might pay others to tend.

For these reasons, and because of the distance from and, until recently, the difficulty of travelling to more urban settlements, the districts of N’yamasheke and Rusizi are poor. In N’yamasheke about 40% of people are in ‘extreme poverty’, meaning their income is less than the bare minimum required to buy food providing at least the amount of calories needed to be able to work (under £83 per year). Overall more than 6/10 live in poverty. Rusizi is slightly better: 4/10 people living in poverty.

An increasing amount of VSO work is concentrated here. The idea in this most deprived area is to concentrate intensively on supporting local government, citizens and services to improve education, but also nutrition and incomes. These issues are really interlinked. You can’t tackle one while ignoring another.

Large families on low incomes can’t always pay pre-primary school fees, or pay for health insurance. Some children are hungry in school. Mothers don’t always eat well during pregnancy and around 4/10 children are stunted.

I had the privilege to see some of VSO’s work in early childhood education (ECE). This is a fairly recent development for Rwanda, where previously school started at around 7 years old in Primary 1 (P1). The government has embraced the idea in hopes of reducing the number of children who have to repeat that first year of primary school – around 70%. Already there are signs that those children who have had a head-start in developing not only literacy and numeracy, but social and critical thinking skills, are progressing faster at primary.

Hardworking teachers making the most of the basics for their classes

But pre-primary teachers in classrooms today are all unqualified. With an ECE module introduced to teacher training colleges three years ago, the first qualified cohort of teachers will graduate in November.

There is also the issue of pay – or lack of it. There is no official salary yet for ECE teachers, who rely on the school fees paid (or as is frequently the case, unpaid) by parents each month. Primary teachers have the security of a salary – but it is low at 30,000 FRW (£30) per month. All this made the efforts of the committed teachers I met all the more astounding and commendable.

VSO – and its volunteers – brings expertise in early childhood education to support Rwanda to improve teachers’ skills and help children learn better, even in overcrowded classrooms where access to resources is limited to non-existent. They’re also working to get parents, school leaders and the wider community more engaged with education.

At a meeting for parents of pre-primary schoolchildren. Mums want the best for their pups no matter where you go in the world.

I also visited livelihoods projects that are supporting cooperatives of vulnerable people to increase their income – which in turn helps their families and quality of life in other areas.

As you can tell I am gross, tired and DELIGHTED to chill with this lovely pig ❤

Surprise, surprise I met some inspirational volunteers, both Rwandan and international. This has got to be one of the best things about working for VSO. The organisation could launch its own TED-style talks series where volunteers could share their stories and inspiring outlook on life.

In the absence of that it was my job to go and get some of those stories. We got some great material including:

  • Parents of nursery age kids who have re-enrolled in primary school themselves
  • An incredibly inspiring teacher doing her best for the 58 kids in her ‘classroom’ (more of a mud-floor shed), for the equivalent of £12 per month
  • A school where parents clubbed together so that the poorest of their number gets a ‘salary’ of sorts to cook a nutritious meal at school

Lots of planning, post-production and writing to do now but I am looking forward to sharing these stories.

To be totally honest, I found this trip quite affecting. Of course, all the children I met were no different from children in any other country. They love playing with a banana flower ‘baby’, or a hoop and stick),  laughing, learning and singing (See when I formed my own cutebrigade of marching children)

But I thought I had seen poverty before, in the rural villages of Botswana, India or Cambodia, or in the Calais ‘jungle’, or even in the hostels and homeless shelters of South London. But I had never before sat with someone while they explain how they have only enough for them and their four daughters to eat once a day, in the evening. To have that person, visibly owning little more than the clothes they are wearing, two beds, some chairs, pots and a mosquito net, offer to pray for you. A thoroughly grounding experience.

The scale of the challenge is just huge. But it doesn’t mean it is insurmountable. It feels like VSO Rwanda is on the right track by taking this integrated, intensive approach and by working so closely with the government, which is deeply ambitious about eliminating poverty, and even moving to middle-income status by 2020. Rwanda is in the best position to overcome its own challenges and this was a great chance to see how the VSO way of working can help with that.

Great team makes work fun: Adeline Uwonkunda (L), VSO Rwanda M&E officer, and Kayibanda Alice (R), talented and hilarious freelance photographer


  • Just before dark when everything is ash blue from the falling light, the shifting horizon and the cooksmoke that hangs in the valleys.
  • Working with a truly fabulous team that made me laugh so much, and with the aforementioned volunteers
  • Making friends with children and a PIG ❤
  • Lake Kivu is famous for sambaza, these little finger-length fishes which are eaten stewed with ugali or deep fried like whitebait. But tastier.
  • “there is only one robber in this village and we know him. He goes to the next village to steal”
  • “the people in America were very stressed. There was no one to guide me, and when they did I felt I was a burden. I got the impression they have difficult lives”

Meh-lights (not lowlights as everything is an experience)

  • Getting cut off in a very remote cell of a village by a rainstorm from hell and then foolhardily attempting to take a motorbike out along the ridge back towards the main road, slipping in the mud, having a bike and grown man fall on me and tearing my nail partway out of the nail-bed. And the similar pain of knowing I would be the one to hand wash the thick mud out of my clothes 😉
It WAS a rain time

I will update with links to outcomes as they’re ready!