October 28, 2010

Raising Rabbits & Roofs in Rwanda. ~ Breanna Draxler

A business-savvy Boulderite uses her knowledge to help Rwandans help themselves.

Photo courtesy Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Education—be it farmers learning to identify potato blight, widows mastering rabbit husbandry or orphans attending school for the first time—is Carole Canale-Mayet’s definition of empowerment.

Such empowerment is the key to the success of her Boulder-based non-profit, Village Makeover. Canale-Mayet is founder and director of the organization that carries out sustainable development projects in the village of Cyanika, Rwanda.

As emblazoned on the homepage of the organization’s website: “It’s not about charity…it’s about changing lives.”

Canale-Mayet spent her childhood among the stacks of her family’s record shop in Ocean City, N.J., and supplemented this nitty gritty business know-how with an eclectic collection of marketing courses at Front Range Community College and the University of Colorado. Her initial forays into business management were in the health food industry, but she has since swapped soy patties for sustainable development.

Village Makeover is Canale-Mayet’s first venture in the non-profit world, and she says the switch was an act of gratitude:

“I feel like life has given me a lot, and I believe what drives me is that I have a responsibility to give back.”

In terms of logistics, though, she says the basic premise of a non-profit organization is needs based, much like that of more lucrative endeavors:

“When you look at a business,” she explained, “you see what the need is, and you try to fill that need.”

Rwanda has no shortage of needs.

The Rwandan genocide in 1994 devastated the Tutsi people when a Hutu Power group used military force to systematically rape and kill the nation’s ethnic majority.

Willy Rumenera is a native Rwandan, a witness of the genocide and an advocate for those widowed, orphaned or impoverished as a result of the tragedy. He is also Canale-Mayet’s business partner.

Rumenera and Canale-Mayet met at Vinelife Church in Longmont in 2005. The church’s senior pastor, Walt Robertson, saw potential in Rumenera while conducting leadership training courses in Rwanda, and invited him back to Boulder. Despite the evangelical origins of the partnership, though, Village Makeover is not religiously affiliated.

“Walt Robertson saw and believed in what we were doing,” said Rumenera of his non-profit work in Rwanda, “so he invited me and my family for training to learn how NGOs function.”

Canale-Mayet and her husband hosted the Rumenera family during their two-year stint in the states, developing a friendship as well as a business plan. Canale-Mayet’s management skills, paired with Rumenera’s on-the-ground experience, finally pushed the fledgling organization out of the nest in 2008.

In the two years since its inception, Village Makeover has implemented numerous initiatives based on community-directed needs assessments in Cyanika, a rural village in northwestern Rwanda.

The list of project areas demonstrates the organization’s comprehensive approach to sustainable development:

  • Education
  • Housing
  • Water
  • Agriculture and livestock
  • Health
  • Economic development
  • Social opportunities

Education is at the top of the list because it is the driver for success in all other areas. Village Makeover employs a methodology called “Each One Teach One,” which Canale-Mayet learned from the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco.

The premise is to teach a particular subject to a small group of people, and make them accountable for sharing that knowledge. Eventually the expertise spreads like a providential virus, empowering the entire community.

A rabbit-breeding program, for example, now supplies meat to local restaurants, fertilizer to local farmers and a source of income to local widows. Village Makeover taught the skills to a few widows, and now all 300 in the village are actively involved.

The Rwandan government has distributed rabbits in the past, but the villagers simply ate them. Now government leaders are sending letters to Village Makeover, commending the program and inquiring about the effectiveness of their methods.

Village Makeover’s success, says Canale-Mayet, is the result of distributing responsibility along with the rabbits. The widows constructed and managed the self-replicating enterprise, which showed them the value of the rabbits in the bigger picture.

The picture continues to grow as they plan the infrastructure for a new goat breeding operation, and pass their expertise on to neighboring villages.

This self-directed initiative is a testament to the empowerment that Village Makeover emphasizes.

“When we do these projects, we’ll teach, we’ll organize, we’ll help resource,” says Canale-Mayet, “but we do not do the work for them. They have to do the work themselves.”

Farmers, who comprise 80 percent of the population of Cyanika, are also hard at work. Agriculture experts from Kenya and the University of Wisconsin at Madison trained them to identify and discard diseased potatoes, effectively doubling the annual crop yields of this dietary staple. The farmers have since constructed a diffused light storeroom and proposed a crop storage facility to accommodate the increased potato production and employ additional villagers.

Once enfranchised, the villagers have no lack of ideas. They are now partnering with Griffin Mueller, a graduate student at Stanford University, to acquire cell phones that will provide health and nutrition information to Cyanika via text messaging, as well as up-to-date market prices for the farmers’ crops.

A gardening project is also being incorporated into the school’s curriculum to provide a school lunch program and teach students how to raise vegetables. A water-capturing system on the school’s roof will likewise provide drinking water.

Such collective action is proof that community cohesion is essential even, or perhaps especially, after a crisis. Despite the desperation in Cyanika, the villagers are not selfish.

“[It] always amazes me,” says Rumenera, “to see that they also care about other people who are suffering.”

He cited the story of one particular widow who spent her days and nights holding an umbrella under the leaky grass roof of her hut to keep her children dry. When the roof finally collapsed during a storm, the woman’s last hope washed away with it.

The woman voiced her intentions of committing suicide to a neighbor, who rallied her fellow widows and, with support from Village Makeover, helped her build a new roof for her home and family. The woman is now living under one of 25 newly installed roofs in Cyanika, according to Rumenera, and there are 10 more on the way.

“The stories,” Canale-Mayet says. “I hear the stories and that lights me up.”

In order to write happy endings to these stories, though, the organization needs resources.

As one grassroots start-up among many, Canale-Mayet says the grant- and donation-dependent organization sometimes struggles to drum up sufficient financial support for its projects because people “don’t pay much attention to needs past their own communities.”

For Boulderites, Rwanda is a far off place. For Rumenera, though, it is the place he calls home.

He describes the organization’s growing pains as “the common reality that characterizes any worthy initiative at the early stages” and he remains actively hopeful in order to avoid “reaching out empty-handed to such very needy and hungry people.”

Rumenera says he is humbled by the success of the organization in Cyanika over the past two years. The widows, the orphans and the impoverished have become the empowered, the educated and the enfranchised. And the proof is in their smiles.

Village Makeover “is not just about roofs or rabbits or the farming project,” Canale-Mayet says. “We’re about changing a community and the people’s lives within it.”

Contact Village Makeover:

Website: rwandavillagemakeover.com
e-mail: [email protected]

Originally from the “Dairy State,” Breanna Draxler has since swapped Wisconsin for Colorado to pursue a masters degree in environmental journalism at CU Boulder.  When not writing, she spends most of her time putting miles on one of the following:  her running shoes, her cross country skis or her frequent flyer card.

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