Monday, July 27, 2009

Volcanoes National Park

Not all Community of Potters villages are alike. We recently traveled to Rwanda's Northern province to visit a COP village located near Volcanoes National Park. The park originally gained recognition as the site of famous naturalist Dian Fossey's work with the mountain gorillas. The park has been designated as a sanctuary for the gorillas and heralded for its role in saving these animals from the brink of extinction.

While much attention has been paid to the survival of the gorillas, very little consideration has been paid to the plight of the pygmies displaced by this ecological project. Beginning in the 1970s, pygmy communities living within the forests surrounding the volcanoes were pushed out of their homes to make way for a gorilla habitat. Forced to resettle elsewhere, the survival of the pygmies, whom were dependent on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, has itself been threatened.

One pygmy community we visited continues to live just outside the boundaries of the park, within site of their former home. The families here live sandwiched between the volcano on one side and someone else's arable farm land on the other. With no land of their own to speak of (imagine, the village comprises only the immediate area surrounding the huts in the photo above), the individuals of this community are battling both extreme poverty and discrimination. After ten years in this location, the living conditions remain very poor for these families. Their homes are often rudimentary and offer little to no protection from the wet, cold conditions existing in this region. Economic opportunities are scarce and families subsist on very little.

It is devastating to think that despite thousands of visitors to Volcanoes National Park each year, the existence and conditions of villages such as this remain overlooked. It is time the pygmies have a national and international advocacy campaign of their own.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Maternal and Child Health

In January, students from the University of Washington conducted household surveys to establish baseline statistics on the overall health and well-being of the Community of Potters living in Bwiza. Back in the States, we were struck by the data they obtained. An exceedingly high number of child deaths were reported, that suggest a rate of child mortality between three to four times the national average for Rwanda.

A new project, led by volunteer Kate Doyle, is aimed at not only corroborating the data obtained in January, but also identifying the causes of morbidity and mortality for these children. Kate and Edith Musabwa, a Rwandan public health student, are utilizing the World Health Organization’s standard Verbal Autopsy Questionnaire to interview mothers in the village. By eliciting the signs and symptoms experienced by children prior to death, it will be possible for the project’s doctors to arrive at the underlying causes of death.

In the process of these interviews we are also obtaining a lot of important information on how women in the village perceive of health and illness and the health-seeking or –demoting behaviors they engage in. Together, this information will enable us to identify possible areas for intervention and design new tools for health education that can reduce the occurrence of needless child deaths.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Bwiza Barbeque

Last Friday, history was made in Bwiza! In celebration of the dedication and hard-work witnessed on the terrace project, a barbeque was thrown for all of the families in the village.

At the suggestion of the villagers, a cow capable of feeding more than 140 people (who some came to call "Jason") was purchased for 90,000 Rwandan francs. As soon as money had passed hands, everyone got down to business. First, our team doctor-turned-veterinarian examined the cow and declared him to be fit and healthy. Then, a small group of men gathered to kill, skin, and butcher the cow as we looked on with interest.

A real division of labor was noticed throughout the day. While the women danced, sang, and arranged for cooking, the men were busy preparing and distributing the meat. Each family received equal portions of the different parts of the cow to prepare at their home. By mid-afternoon, we were enjoying our brochettes (prepared on a small fire and served on newly made brochette sticks) and the villagers were returning home to prepare a feast of their own.

The event was a joyous occasion for everyone involved and will no doubt be remembered for a very long time. For us it was also a great learning experience, and possibly the freshest meal we have been served yet!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Moto, anyone?

Question: What's the fastest way to get through rush hour traffic in Kigali?

Answer: A moto!

Motos are fast, relatively cheap and exhilarating to ride. Yes, they can be dangerous as they weave down the center strip of the street dodging minibuses that are clogged with commuters and dump trucks that belch diesel fumes. Yes, they can be really scary the first time or two. But look at the front of the moto drivers on the left and on the right of this photo and what do you see? Each is carrying a helmet for the passenger. Passengers ride behind the driver, gripping handle grips on the saddle, protected by a helmet and full face guard and by the physical mass of the driver himself. Quite simply, these guys are professionals. (Neither I nor anyone I know know has ever seen a female moto driver.) Motos would be totally at home on the post-apocalyptic set of the movie "Mad Max" and for less than a dollar they'll take you half-way across the city. They seem to operate with the fuel gauge perpetually on "E"; but somehow they make an irreplaceable contribution to the transportation network of Kigali.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words...

Or possibly more.

Another new initiative is afoot with our latest team of volunteers. As part of our outreach work, we are conducting household surveys of families of Community of Potters living in neighboring districts. As part of this process, volunteers Bill and Noël have come up with a creative way of thanking families for speaking with them.

After each survey, a household is given a photo of their family standing in front of their home. This is made possible through the use of a compact, lightweight, battery-operated Canon photo printer. We are able to take and print a digital photo in the field in less than two minutes! In the photo above you can see Bill with the printer, demonstrating how it works to some of the kids.

The photos have become extremely popular, with everyone asking for a printed copy of their own. Aside from the inherent personal value of owning a photo of one’s family, the photos are sometimes the only glimpse of oneself that these individuals have had in a very long time. This simple, relatively inexpensive process has proven to be of immeasurable value for everyone involved.

A Community Effort

A unique new project is underway in Bwiza village. Early last week our volunteer Engineering team, comprised of John Didicher, Noel Relyea, and Bill Wood, devised a terracing plan for the steep, rocky, and under-utilized slopes of Bwiza. By carving out terraces on the hillsides and supplementing them with manure, the villagers will be able to grow food for their families and also prevent erosion in the long-term.

The project was presented by our field manager, Eddy Rwagasore, as a means through which we can help the village to help themselves. Very quickly, a special committee of eager and excited residents was assembled to lead in the effort. To get started, we supplied hoes, shovels, and picks to aid in the construction. We are also providing the worker’s families with food that will not only maintain their strength, but also offset any potential loss of income during the construction process.

The terrace building has been a great collaborative effort, with men, women and children working daily toward the goal of creating a sustainable source of food in the village. In just a few short days, seven terraces have been erected on the slopes of Bwiza, with the promise of more to come. With each day we look forward to seeing the progress that has been made while we were away!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Photographic Evidence: Peanut Butter as Medicine!

This picture shows the blond hair of one of the boys in Bwiza village when we visited in January 2009. The color change of the hair is the result of chronic protein-calorie malnutririon, also known as "kwashiorkor". As one of 3 boys in this family, this little guy was not getting the nutrition he needed to grow and develop normally. He was quiet, reserved to the point of lethargy and not playful. The mother reported having eaten no sources of protein in the last week.

This next picture shows the same boy on the left, riding on the back of his older brother 6 months later. Notice his hair is back to a nearly-normal shade of black. His activity is improved, he is more playful, and he is often asking for food. By all accounts he is acting a lot more like a "normal" kid. What made the difference? Just one teaspoonful of peanut butter a day. We have been providing the family a minimal nutritional suplement prepared in our field managers' own kitchen using peanut butter rolled in powdered infant formula. Like magic, a small boost in calories and protein each day has changed this boy's health, improved his development and provided a foundation for an improved ability to fight infection and resist disease. Peanut butter as medicine? See the evidence for yourself!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Welcome back Ka-day!

Over in Rwanda, the "r" sound and the "l" sound in English often get mixed-up. So my name becomes "Ka-day" instead of "Karl". That's what they said when we came back to the village of Bwiza this time. When I walk past the little kids, the say "Ka-day". When the women dance and then bow and give me a hug, they say "Ka-day". I'm getting used to it. But the vitality of the people is always amazing. This time we returned to the village, the men danced, the women danced, and everyone sang and clapped their hands. The series of hugs and greetings were wonderful and great fun. Our team knew it had to rise to the occasion, and it did: we responded with a rousing round of "Row, row, row your boat.", which resulted in an enthusiastic wave of applause and a tumult of satisfaction. When I asked the villagers why these American volunteers had come to help, they knew right away, "Love", came the group reply. "Wow", I thought, they really get it. And the volunteers here on our team do too. It is a great team and we are here for a month to work on the COPHAD project with the Community of Potters of Rwanda, (formerly known as the Batwa pygmies). Stay tuned for more over the next few weeks as we relate the news from Kigali, and Bwiza, Rwanda...