By Billy Kelly, Msaada Director
When I first encountered Adot, I was impressed by the simple but very effective method they chose to demonstrate their concept by using a black dot on a white background.
And yes, I did see the dot and ignored the vast amount of white that surrounded it, when I first looked at it.
That very much resonated with me, because I had encountered that exact experience in real life in Rwanda.
I had seen the small differences between myself, my family, my friends in Ireland and the UK and those I was working to assist in Rwanda. I totally ignored the large similarities.
The precise moment I was confronted by my assumptions was an experience I won’t easily forget.
Msaada, the UK registered Non-Governmental Organisation that I founded in 2005, works with an association of genocide widows in Rwamagana District in eastern Rwanda. We began by doing some of the usual things NGOs tend to do, such as sponsoring children to go to school and putting in water supplies for communities.
One day, one of the widows, Odette, who has been a dear friend now for about 15 years, approached me and wondered if she could ask me a question.
At that time, I would have been working with Odette for about five years.
I assured her that she could ask me anything that she wished.
“Who paid for your children to go to school?” she enquired.
I replied: “I did, of course.”
She stared at me for a few moments (that felt like hours) and then demanded: “Do you think I am different?”
I was shocked, because I did think she was different; she was poor and African and I was a well-resourced European.
I apologised profusely: “I am so sorry, Odette,” I replied. “I am embarrassed and ashamed of myself.”
I had failed abysmally to see the similarities between us and instead had only seen the differences.
I had not offered Odette the dignity and respect that I had assumed for myself.
It took a virtual slap in the face to drive this home to me.
Odette explained that when I sponsored her daughter to attend school, I was in fact also pointing out to her daughter that Odette was unable to provide properly for her own family.
I had never seen it like that.
Odette explained that it demonstrated to her family that if they wanted to attend school, they would need some benevolent foreigner to come along and pay for it, as their mother was unable to do so. They were being told that their mother was unable to provide them with the care they needed.
I was shaken by this, but once I recovered from the rebuke, I realised that, of course, any self-respecting person would want to be able to care for their own family and not have to rely on hand-outs from anyone.
Odette wondered if I had clean water myself at home.
“Yes,” I conceded, “and, yes, I do pay for it.”
Odette explained, patiently, that her problem was not that she did not have clean water.
Her problem was that she was poor!
She urged me to tackle that issue and not to focus on the symptoms of the problem.
“I need an income,” she stressed, “not a water pump that I won’t be able to fix when it breaks because I will still be poor and without any income.”
She said that once she had an income she would provide her own water and pay for her children to go to school herself.
I asked Odette why she, and the other widows, put up with people like me addressing the symptoms of their problem while ignoring the underlying problem of poverty.
Why did they not speak out?
She said that the degrading experience of putting your hand out and hoping that some well-meaning individual would drop something in it was often all that was on offer. Few people, she went on, take the time to listen to the widows. Instead, they arrive in Rwanda with a programme already designed in Ireland or the USA or wherever, that suits the needs of the NGO without much thought for what the people they are trying to help might wish for.
“If someone offers to pay for my daughter to go to school, and there is nothing else being offered, of course I will take it, I have no choice!” she explained.
As a result of this experience, Msaada now focusses on providing our Rwandan friends with the means to generate their own income through the provision of high-yielding dairy cows from Ireland, which are distributed one cow per family along with the necessary training, facilities and veterinary support to ensure the cows produce a lot of milk.
A local cow produced one or two litres of milk per day, our European cows produce an average of about 18 litres per day, and in a few cases, are producing over 30 litres per day.
The recipients of our cows are generating about £3 per day (seven days a week) from selling surplus milk, and up to an additional £1 per day from increased crop yields thanks to the use of the manure from the cow as fertiliser. That level of income is enough to lift the individuals from abject poverty to being tax payers.
Our change of direction has proven to be popular with the Rwandan authorities.
Each year the Rwandan Governance Board, the local District authorities and the Rwanda Migration Office assess the work being done by NGOs in Rwanda.
For the past two years Msaada has been ranked as being the best performing and most effective NGO in Rwamagana District, and, the District was ranked as the best performing in Rwanda.
THE Mayor of Rwamagana District, Mbonyumuvunyi Radjab, thanked Msaada for being totally focused on improving the livelihoods of poor Rwandan families.
“There are 75 local
and international organisations which operate in Rwamagana District
and many of them have annual budgets that are three or four times bigger than that of Msaada,” he commented. “But, when you evaluate their impact, they don’t perform as Msaada does. I thank Msaada for being focused on its activities which aim at improving the livelihoods of poor families.”
Msaada thanks Adot for believing in our work and for the wonderful support they have already provided to us. We look forward to working with Adot in the coming years.
Full details of our work can be found on www.msaada.org