Saturday, July 27, 2013

House construction - Rwandan style

We had a chance to help to build a house near Rwamagana.  The basic construction material is bricks made of sun-baked mud.  The bricks are not fired in a kiln.  They are simply mud shaped into rectangular blocks and dried under the sun.  They are surprisingly hard, but as one can imagine, is not very durable, particularly when it rains.  I remember vividly how a dog house made with mud bricks in an orphanage collapsed in the rain, nearly killing the dog Michael.  In this case the mud bricks were purchased and trucked over to our building site.

A cooperative supported by African Enterprises is building a house for a children-headed household.  There are several (7, I believe) brothers and sisters in a family where the parents have passed away.  The children have been scattered and living among relatives.  African Enterprises decided to help them to build a house so that they can live together with the semblance of family life.

Part of the house has already been built when we get there. Some of us help to level the ground around the house.  It is hard work hoeing to remove the dirt and debris that has piled up several feet high around the house.  I know, because I spent more than half an hour helping to level the ground. I was so enthusiastic I almost toppled a banana tree that they wanted to keep.  The villagers laughed but I was embarrassed.

There is no running water.  It has to be trucked in, for building the house and to water the passion fruit field nearby.  The water is poured into a big hole in the ground lined with a canvas.  Then it is carried by hand into another pit where it is mixed with mud to form a rudimentary mortar.  Then the mud bricks are stacked, with a layer of mortar filling the gaps between layers of bricks.

For those who can afford it, a real of cement is plastered over the brick walls, to protect it against the rain.  Most of the houses in the country side are built this way.  Such is the state of rural development in Rwanda.  As for our students, they are exhausted and sore all over.  But they also learn that physical labour can be exhilaratingly satisfying.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Toilet as social enterprise

I would not normally think of a toilet as a public enterprise.  But that’s exactly what African Enterprise did. One of their key strategies is to help the local people, typically women, to form self-help cooperatives of 20 members each.  Each cooperative would decide to develop businesses matching their skills and local needs.  Our job is to learn about the businesses, interview the members of the cooperatives, take photographs and videos, and publicize their stories through their web site, promotional materials, and our own channels.

One such business is a fee-charging public latrine at the corner of a bus station / car park.  Water is in short supply all over Rwanda, and particularly in the mountains.  They have to pay to have pipes installed to deliver water to the latrine. Each person is charged 100 Rwanda franc, which is roughly US 15 cents, or HK$ 1.22.  It is not cheap by Rwandan standards.  But there seems to be sufficient demand at the bus station to make it profitable.  And by making water available, it is actually helping to improve the general hygiene in the area.  It really is a great social enterprise and a public good.

The lady manager speaks with confidence and authority.  She employees a man who collects the fees and does the chores around the place.  I was told that in the past, women usually stay home and do not work outside; hence they do not enjoy a lot of economic power.  Now a lot more women work gainfully, and enjoy a lot more independence and higher status in society.  I was also told that there is a practical reason why the members of the cooperatives are generally women - women tend to be more loyal members!

I find it all very encouraging and amusing.

Water in Rwanda

Water (the lack of it) is a big problem in Rwanda.  For roughy half a year, there is hardly any rain.  Even in the capital city, Kigali, water supply can be cut off for a whole district for months.  People who can afford it buy water delivered by water trucks.  Others carry water in plastic cans themselves.

For most of the villages up in the hills and mountains there is no water supply at all.  Many people spend hours each day carrying water up to their houses.  Vendors ferry water cans with bicycles.  They are pushing the bicycles, because the unpaved roads are too steep and rough to ride on.

It has not rained for such a long time, and it is so dusty, that the banana leaves have turned brown.  Fortunately, it is not because they are dying.  They are simply covered by a layer of red earth.

Even then, many of the women, even in fairly remote places, are dressed in clean, brightly-coloured dresses.   Evidently it is a matter of pride for them the way they present themselves even while they are simply carrying out their daily chores.

And everywhere we go, whether in Kigali, Ruhanga, Rwamagana, or villages up in the mountains, there is hardly any garbage on the streets, in and around houses.    Even in the height of the dry season.  Simply amazingly admirable.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


On Sunday, we took a day off to go to Akagera National Park, about an hour away from Rwamagana.  There we found baboons, waterbucks, elands, topi, impalas, giraffes, hippopotami, zebras, crocodiles, fish eagles, kingfishes, egrets, storks,  warthogs, monitor lizards, elephants, water buffalos, ..., and a lot of bones.

There used to be lions.  But the encroachment of humans killed them off.  Now they are talking about re-introducing lions to the park.  There is theory that when lions start killing the animals, the animals scatter, more groups are formed, and the populations actually increase.  I wonder whether this will actually happen in reality. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Computer Laboratory for Rwamagana

African Enterprises runs a Center for Champions in Rwamagana, 50 kilometers each of Kigali in eastern Rwanda. It has 500 students in its primary school for street kids. Some of these kids are in their 20s already yet they have not been schooled. The school runs a fast track primary school in which students complete the 6-year primary curriculum in 3 years. It has designated a room for a computer laboratory but it has no computers yet - until we arrived.

We raised some funds among our friends and bought 10 computers for the laboratory.  We also bought a server, a router, 2 switches, and hundreds of meters of network cable.  The laboratory was set up in an hour.  We set up an e-library of hundreds of useful e-books on the server.  Now the school can teach with its own own local area network, even though it has no access to the Internet (it it too expensive).

And then we ran 3 days of workshops for the ~10 teachers and ~30 selected students.  We taught the teachers basic computer network concepts, how to set up their own LAN, and how to make use of the resources in the e-library for teaching.  We also taught the students, many of whom had not touched a computer before, how to make and edit movies, as a way to teach them some common but useful IT skills, and motivate them to learn.  We seemed to have succeeded - many of them refuse to leave even after the class was finished.

This evening, while we were cleaning up after the lessons finished, the electrical power went out.  The whole place was plunged into darkness.  We quickly whipped out 2 solar power charged LED packs so that we can continue to work.  It feels great to be given a chance to demonstrate a practical use of the solar panels.

The head mistress of the school, and several of the leaders of AE thanked us earnestly and beseeched us to come back.  It it gratifying to know that our efforts are appreciated. If it is up to me to decide, we will definitely come back to do more.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Truck Hopping - Rwandan style

We were driving along on a street busy in both vehicle and pedestrian traffic. The open-bed truck in front of us slowed to ~10 km/hr because of the heavy traffic.  A body suddenly walked out from the right hand side to the middle of the lane right in front of us, and climbed onto a moving truck (estimated speed 10 km/hr). The truck then sped up.  In a few minutes, the truck again slowed because of tthe traffic. I was not fast enough to catch that.

A few minutes later, he climbed off the bed of the truck, stepped onto the road, and walked back to the kerb.  This time my camera was ready.

I have never seen anything like that before. Amazing, isn’t it? I had heard of train-hopping.  But this is new to me.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Patients at mobile clinic

African Evangelical Enterprises runs a lot of projects all over Rwanda. The more we work with them, the more we are impressed by the scale and depth of their work.  We visited one of their mobile clinics in Kigali, where a nurse comes regularly to treat the patients and dispense medicine.

Many of the patients have AIDS.  They are prescribed medicine for it by the government.  And the medicine is doing a good job, keeping many alive for years.  However, many of them are weakened by AIDS, making them susceptible to many other diseases.  The AEE clinic treats those other diseases.

Our students interviewed nurse Rosa and some of the patients.  One of them was raped and given AIDS during the genocide, and she lost her husband.  One of her sons also has AIDS.  She has several children (4, I believe), whom she brought up by herself.  But then she also brought up 10+ other children of relatives orphaned by the genocide.  When she talked, she told us about her sufferings matter-of-fact-ly, and displayed no bitterness.  Instead, she was grateful that she was getting help, that the children are growing up, and things are looking up.

Perhaps that's the only way to survive.  To dwell in the past is just too painful.  One can only put the  the past behind and concentrate on living forward.  It is logical yet tremendously hard, running against our natural human instincts.  It is possible if one has faith, which many of these people have.

It also seems to be a common theme - Rwanda people (having many children of their own) raising many other children (of relatives) orphaned by the genocide - acts of love amid horrible evil.  They give us hope in a world of despair.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Solar Power

Many of the places in the world do not have easily accessible electrical power.  That includes much of rural Cambodia and Rwanda.  After much discussions with the NGOs that we worked with, and investigations into possible solutions, we settled on a basic design.  It includes 4 small solar panels that generate sufficient voltage to charge a couple of rechargeable batteries.

We pack the 4 solar panels on one side of a transparent plastic case, and connect it through a circuit to charge the batteries.  The batteries are in turn connected to a bunch of LEDs, on the opposite side of the plastic box.  A sensor detects the orientation of the box.  When the solar panels are facing up, the batteries are charged.  When the box is tilted, the LEDs light up for illumination.  There is no switch to turn it on and off.  It is simply controlled by tilting the box.

One of the practical problems that it solved in having dinner in the dark.  At the Happyland Orphanage in Cambodia, power outages are frequent.  Our solar panel / LED light box proves to be very useful.

We have since developed an alternate design.  The solar panels and the batteries are separated.  The solar panels box can be connected to the battery box to charge the battery.  Then the battery box can be used independently to charge small equipment such as smart phones.  In much of rural Rwanda, where there is simply no electrical supply, the solar power boxes are much appreciated.  We brought 12 sets with us, but that is obviously far from enough.  Now that we know this solution works, we will try to build on it for future projects.

Self-help kindergarten

A key strategy of African Enterprise is to help the people to help themselves.  Today we visited some of their sites to document the projects and the stories of the people, to help them publicize their work.  There is a 3-room kindergarten up in the hills several kilometers south of the airport.  There is no running water supplied by the government, nor is there other accessible water source.  Hence some enterprising entrepreneurs ferry water up the hills by bicycles.  It is obviously back-breaking hard work.

It is now dry season.  The banana leaves (and all other vegetation, in fact) turn red because they are covered by the dust.

Primary school education is theoretically provided free of charge by the government.  In reality there are fees for uniforms and other charges, making it hard for the poor to stay in school.  Without proper training, it is also hard for the children of the poor to even start in primary one.  Hence AEE sets up this primary school for the children in poverty, to prepare them for primary school.  This reminds me of what YMCA is doing in the slums of Cambodia.  It seems the problems in poor countries can be strikingly similar.

Francine is one of the three school teachers, who are all volunteers from the village.  She has a secondary school education, and is only given a small stipend.  When we ask the children why they like to come to school, the top two reasons are (1) food and (2) drink.

The kids, with their big round heads, and big round eyes, are infinitely cute.