Menstruation march in Rwanda – SHE is on the move!

March 27, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I am having a one-woman party for Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) today!   On Friday SHE held a mobilization in Rwanda “breaking the silence” about menstruation.  They gathered  hundreds of people for a march through the city, including some “Big Shots” like government ministers to call for:

-Open dialogue on menstrual issues;
-Increased access to health and hygiene education;
-Increased access to affordable sanitary pads.

The entrance fee to the event was a packet of sanitary pads, and participants received a bottle of water and T-shirt. I love that!  And lets be frank, a march through town about menstruation is a bold thing to do in Africa where things about sex, reproductive health and women’s bodies are not talked about in public.  Most exciting (and it cannot be overstated)  is that this is totally Rwandan-driven, with many students and local women’s groups taking the lead.

When I wrote SHE’s media strategy for my thesis I theorized that this kind of event is great for “trickle-up” media attention — coverage in the Rwandan paper will add credibility later for farther-reaching global media.

Julian (SHE leader in Rwanda) hits the nail on the head on the SHE blog when she writes:

I just realized for sure is, just as we all need management and bookkeeping skill, every one needs advocacy and awareness skills. Right now as I write this, my is 15 minutes away, and I can’t think of anything to do, other than work on the campaign, one of my campaign partners mentioned she cannot concentrate on a thing, until launch of campaign is done, no wonder this is full time job for some.

I am staying tuned to hear more about the reactions of the community to what happened.  I will be checking the SHE blog for updates.


some closing reflections on the Rwanda youth gathering and the digital divide

April 7, 2008 at 1:43 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I am back in the US and missing Africa, what an amazing experience. This was my trip across the digital divide, which really ended up reinforcing how strong it still is.

I came back with one less suitcase, leaving behind a used lap top, a flash drive, two Flip videos, two digital recorders and a printer/scanner/copier. I am convinced that technology is what we rich country folks should lug over in our suitcases. I would have brought a bluetooth headset for Pastor John if I had known how much work he does on the phone while driving around the country in his green truck. His office is in his cell phone.

I shared my hotel with a bunch of Americans from Rick Warren’s Saddle Back Church, an evangelical mega-church in Southern California. After training 300 pastors, they were in town to officially certify that Rwanda is a “Purpose-driven Country”. Warren’s best-seller, A Purpose Driven Life is translated into Kinyarwandan and a lot of Rwandans have read the book. Anyhow, all the gung-ho Saddlebackers had brought a ton of soccer balls and Christian books.

The conference youth media team was earnest, an but as genius as they were, they faced a lot of obstacles. They watched me take notes on my lap top with amazement as my fingers flew over the keys… most of them type one finger at a time. I watched two of them work for thirty minutes on a paragraph for their blog to see the internet connection reload and lose their content. But they have made a cool photo diary.

A journalist from New Times, the Rwandan English paper, came to see what we were up to. He did several interviews, then went on his way. I asked him if he had an email address so we could send him our press updates, and he said he didn’t have one.

Finally on my last day in Kenya, I showed George, our media team leader this blog, and it literally took his computer 10 minutes to load it! This makes me really sad, because George is so tech-savvy, and he is going to edit all our video, but how can he do this with such a slow internet speed? He says he has a faster connection at home, especially at night when people are not using it. I have not posted pictures yet because even though the internet seemed pretty quick, uploading photos in Africa overwhelmed the internet connection even at my muzungu guest house.

So, my conclusion about communication for development is that it still must happen face to face. The Rwandan youth conference was a success because when you bring young people together, they have a good time. And what better way to build bridges across ethnic, geographic, economic and other divisions, then by spending a few days together singing, praying, talking about your country and learning from each other?

After spending a few days in Kenya before flying back, I have become convinced the young people of Kenya need their own summit. Like the rest of Kenya, I am afraid the power share of President Kibaki and Odinga is just too fragile — and there is so much at stake for this nation of 40 million people. The post-election violence in Kenya after Christmas was done largely by young men and broke along tribal lines. Now when I talk to Kenyans they mention their tribes in a way like I never heard before. These divisions are dangerous if they are allowed to settle. If I can round up $25,000 USD I will be planning a Kenyan youth peace summit and we will invite youth from across the country from different tribes…

the power of testimony in Rwanda

April 1, 2008 at 8:38 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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genocideir testomony
Testimony is given while media team films both speaker and translator.

Yesterday we heard a testimony from a man who participated in the Rwandan genocide. He killed the parents of his neighbors, and now he lives with them side by side. After spending several years in jail, the government let him go on the condition that he would publicly confess his crimes and encourage others to turn themselves in. Fourteen years after the genocide, thousands of genocidiers are living in exile in the bush in Congo or hiding in Europe.

There was a lot lost from his testimony in translation. I think our translator, an orphan herself, was unable to fully repeat the words he was saying. He told us that after he was released from jail, he lived in the bush for months until his neighbors came and told him to come back. They even gave him food for his children. He was a small, sad looking man in a red flannel shirt, and while he was speaking some people got up and left the room. He was 16 when he committed these crimes. After he gave his talk he said, “raise your hand if you forgive me.” Most of the room raised their hand.

The day before this we traveled to two memorial sites. The first was a church in Ntarama that holds the remains of 5,000 people that were hiding in the church when a grenade was thrown through the wall. Their blood-stained clothes are kept in neat piles on the pews and there are rows of skulls. Some of the Rwandan girls started crying so hard they were hyperventilating, one girl vomited… So this is healing?

Altar cloth still remains covered in blood

Just a few kilometers down the road from Ntarama is a larger site called Nyamata, one of the most famous sites of the genocide. It is a Catholic church that was run by a Belgian priest and Rwandan nuns who were later some of the first people tried for war crimes. They told the Tutsis, you can come here, you will be safe, and so 10,000 people gathered there. The altar is kept as it was, the white cloth covered in faded blood. Behind the church you can walk into the sarcophagus and look at rows and rows of skulls, many of them cracked from machete blows.

As an American, it is impossible to truly understand how Rwandans must feel seeing this. These are not my people; I am not looking at a memorial site in Washington State for a massacre that happened when I was 14 years-old. Many of the Rwandans I went with were seeing the sites for the first time. These skulls were their families. One young man told me, I lost my father, but I don’t know what happened to him, I am always looking for him everywhere I go.

These churches, like this man, are living testimonies to what took place. It is important to speak directly about what happened. Though the genocide is everywhere in this country, it is not often openly discussed. For this man to give testimony, however difficult, is to create a space where the genocide is discussed and denounced. They tell me there are no longer Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, there are only Rwandans.

A lesson in infrastructure, high transportation costs in Rwanda

March 29, 2008 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I remember learning the word infrastructure in social studies class, the definition my teacher gave was that it meant transportation and communication. After some time here in Rwanda, I am realizing that the majority of the country’s spending money is going to pay for getting from place to place.

Providing money for transportation is a key principle for youth participation in any process, but in this case we would have no youth conference if we did not pay for peoples transport– and that includes the speakers. I reimbursed Pastor John for a tank of gas for his car today and it was $100 USD. We think the oil crisis is hurting people in the US– the price of gas here is incredible. I am paying some of the participants the equivalent of $10 a day to travel by bus to and from the site. Otherwise $10 can get you pretty far here– in rural areas it is the amount of a micro-finance loan. Our total transportation costs for this meeting, for both reimbursing participants and managing logistics are nearly going to equate our housing costs.

On the flip side, driving is in Rwanda is pleasant because there are few cars and the roads are well maintained. But this morning I woke in a panic because I was late and all the traffic was stopped from 8-12pm for the national monthly clean-up day. You are not allowed to drive because you are supposed to clean up your neighborhood. Rene told me one time his cousin was on a way to a wedding and the police stopped them. They had to get out of the car, take off their suit jackets and roll up their sleeves to start fixing the road.

Second to transport costs are cell phones. To use your cell phone you have to buy mobile credits, and depending on who you are calling they can run out pretty quick. Especially if you are coordinating a conference you are on the phone all day.

I really think that if you ran the numbers the majority of this country’s cash-in-hand is going to getting around and talking to people; something we in the West do without second thought. We live with the inherent assumption that we can go anywhere and say anything at anytime. We say time is money. Well, in Africa it seems all the time in the world is being spent just getting from place to place.

a song and a powerpoint for reconciliation

March 27, 2008 at 8:22 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The youth conference I am coordinating in Rwanda is in full swing and these youth are blowing me away. I arrived at the conference center this morning and 80 of them were standing in rows at their conference table singing. We have so many resources in our audience, we just have to ask, who can lead a song? and an entire choir comes up and sings in harmony. I don’t know a lot about music but there is something about an African choir that the West can’t even touch.

This was the first day of the conference, so I was worried everything would go wrong, but the it was a great day. We have more than 80 young people from Rwanda, DRC, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and USA. Somehow they came, across language barriers and borders, and the way the information traveled is a fascinating exercise in word of mouth and community networks, but more on that later. After the singing, a young person from each church and country came up and told about their local youth projects and challenges. Everything was translated to English or Kinyarwandan on the spot. Did I mention that this portion of the schedule was unplanned?

Our speaker on peace and reconciliation came with his own powerpoint machine during lunchtime. While I was pleased to see he brought his machine, I was worried about the power supply, the screen, the technology…so many things could fail. Well, now I understand whey a trainer on peace and reconciliation needs a power point. When you talk about a genocide, the pictures of the people who have been killed, bodies stacked in the road, have so much more power than any words. The electricity held throughout, but a tremendous downpour — the kind that is inches of water in minutes– started mid-presentation and rain came through the roof and onto his laptop.

Unfortunately the conference center promised us both internet and a sound system and failed to deliver on both. So our youth media team can’t blog live as planned, instead they have to shuttle in the evening downpour to a hotel so they can upload pictures on their blog. (You can have a sneak peak as they just get started.) But they are determined, so they will stop at nothing now that they have a platform.
media team hard at work
They are cutting videos on the new Flip Video, a camera with a USB port on its side, cute as an Ipod, super easy to use, and takes double AA batteries for an hour of footage. Interestingly, the youth media team of the conference is almost all women. Now this doesn’t surprise me as my co-students in Strategic Communications are almost all female, but we had to struggle to make sure that this conference had gender balance. When you make a call for youth leaders in Africa you will get all men if you’re not careful. In Africa, communications is still a male profession, so building a youth media movement could really do a lot to empower women, as well as promote literacy and civic participation.

There is something really happening here, so stay tuned…

Marketing after a genocide

March 25, 2008 at 6:30 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I had a fascinating conversation with Richard, the program manager for the Business Council for Peace in Rwanda. Bpeace, an organization headquartered in New York, provides mentorship and support to women entreprenuers in Rwanda and Afghanistan. They support 20 businesses in Rwanda, from specialized hair braiding and landscaping, to a hotel and amusement park, linking each up with experienced mentors in the US.

I was so interested to hear about how marketing works in a culture where literacy is not widespread. One of the major challenges Richard comes up against is that people have no concept of having a target audience. Businesses make the classic mistake of advertising to everyone and getting no one. So a lot of his work is helping businesses develop marketing plans, logos, branding, and segmenting their audiences.

After a few days of watching Rwandan TV, I realized something was missing — commercials! He says that airtime is so expensive, that no one buys them. The one commercial that is running  is for a bank advertising mortgages. I was really happy to hear they have home mortgages in Rwanda (14% rate but it could be way worse), this is a major step to economic growth. By advertising on TV, the bank is reaching its audience: the middle and upper-class who can afford to buy houses. But this is almost the only commercial on TV.

Even though TV and print media are out, word of mouth marketing is huge. Recently Richard has been focusing on training his business partners in customer service. While word of mouth can be a major strength, it can also be very damaging. If you have bad customer service watch out, word can get around Kigali is just a few hours! He urges businesses to do more outreach, like making follow-up calls to hear about customer satisfaction, wish clients happy birthday, or announce a new service.

The culture here is close knit.   For every person you meet, you say hello, shake hands and ask how they are doing. As a foreigner, I am constantly being told, “feel at home,” and they mean it, they really want me to be comfortable and relaxed. But it has taken years for this culture of openness to return after the genocide period, and it is still not fully back. From 1995-2005, people closed off from each other, and it was a very hard environment for marketing.

But Richard thinks Rwanda is honing its competitive advantages. For the past few years, President Kagame has positioned the country as the IT capital of Africa — and at least in Kigali wireless internet is everywhere. But this is not the only communication advantage of Rwanda. Besides Kinyarwandan, Rwandans are strongly encouraged to know French and English. This gives the country the ability to do business with Francophone West Africa, as well as join the fast-growing markets of the East Africa in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. The goal is to have top-notch translation and conference services so that Rwanda is an international business center.

I have had my eye out for research and examples of marketing in developing countries for some time, and they are not easy to find. Richard is learning as he goes, and I don’t think it’ll be long before he has the definitive body of expertise on how its done.

Jean-Claude and the global research divide

March 21, 2008 at 10:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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RwandaI am writing from Rwanda so communication for development is taking on its true meaning.  The first thing I did after recovering from jetlag was trying to log on to the Internet. When I finally gave up on my laptop and asked for the public computer, Christopher asked me, (insert French accent) “but I am IT, why did you not ask us, we are here to help you?”  

Thank god for him— the horror of a week without Internet was too much to bear.  But it got me thinking about why someone with advanced IT skills is on the small staff of this guest house.  He is vital for business from all the muzungus who stay at the hotel.  Cost for wireless is about $8 a day.  

But I am not the only young person for whom online access is critical to where I stay.  I had a long talk with Jean-Claude today, a sixth-year medical student from Butare.   After he finishes his medical degree, he is required by the government to work in a rural hospital.  While this sounds good on paper, the young doctors are not compensated for the hardship they take on.  Beyond having to practice in a rudementary clinic, living in the rural area actually presents a is a higher cost of living.  

“There is no way I am going to live somewhere without access to the Internet,” says Jean-Claude, who thinks that sending doctors to rural areas is key, but that their must be an incentive so that they will want to go.   For instance, there is a hospital in the Eastern province funded by the Clinton Foundation.  Despite its remoteness, doctors are lining up to go because of top-notch facilities and a decent wage.

Jean-Claude is now doing his final research to complete his degree. He will focus on malnutrition of children of HIV+ mothers.  Even if a child does not have HIV, she or he still faces enormous risks because she will not be fed breast milk after the age of 6 months for fear of mother-to-child transmission.  And poor mothers cannot afford to feed thier infants formula or cow milk alternatives.  

His is important research, but like every other medical student at his university, he has only $200 for the year-long study.   In Rwanda, transportation is expensive, so this won’t buy him many trips to interview the people he needs to reach, let alone pay for any tests he needs to conduct.   As a result of, he says many medical students make up their final research data.

After he spends two years serving in a rural hospital, Jean-Claude wants to study medicine abroad; he is desperate to learn from specialized pracitioners and use high-tech medical equipment.  It got me wondering how medical research can be supported in developing world.  As just one student with one professor as an adviser, he has no capacity or even expertise to qualify for a grant from the Clintons or the Gates of the world.  At most Western universities money for research is just a few phone calls away.  As an energetic, compassionate and inquiring young man who speaks three languages, Jean-Claude is a huge asset to his country.  He should be invested in, but how?

This is the global research divide.       

Pick one: laptop, internet, radio or cell phone

February 16, 2008 at 9:45 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I am still thinking about a poll I saw on Communication Initiative’s technology for development website.  It asked, which of the following technologies has the most potential for accelerating progress to reduce poverty? Film/Video, Internet, Interpersonal discussion, lap top, cell phone, print media, television, radio, wireless or other. 

There are 213 votes so far, and cell phones are leading with 23% or 50 votes, Radio with 23% and 48 votes, Internet with 20% at 40 votes, TV with 10% at 22 votes, Interpersonal discussion at 8% with 18 votes.   Laptops only have 3% with 5 votes!

I would love to see thousands of people take this survey from all over the world, and have their results disaggregated by location, as well as age, gender and occupation.   I voted for Internet, because in my job I have to connect to people around the world daily, and this is the only way I hear from them, whether by email or skype.  But, the internet as a communication lifeline is still tenuous, and it only works if I have met the people before, i.e. through “interpersonal communication”, clearly valued by poll takers.   After you meet and form a connection, the trick becomes keeping in touch.  I personally do so through sending out an e-newsletter every two months that lists opportunities and resources useful to people working with NGOs on the ground.   In a way it does not matter if they read my newsletter, it matters that they see my name in their inbox.  After I send the newsletter I frequently get requests for help or news from the people on my list. 

 I think the lap top numbers of this poll are telling.   People do not need their own computer necessarily (though those of us in the US could not imagine life with out it), they need money to go to an internet cafe, and they need a fast connection when they get there.   A lap top is not so useful if no one can help you fix it, if you have to worry about it getting stolen, or if there is no internet access for you to plug into.   In another post I will have to do some sleuthing to figure out how the $100 lap top, (“One Laptop per child”) program is going, and how they are going to adjust the machine to fit the resources people have on the ground.  

The fact that radio numbers are so high make me want to ditch this blog for a radio show.  From my seat in the U.S., radio is not seen as cutting edge, and therefore is often forgotten in the development discourse that I am exposed to.  But to people living in remote rural areas, a radio is their only tie to the world outside their village.  Therefore it becomes a huge part of their education and socialization.  I have read some exciting studies about using radio for reconciliation in Rwanda (soap operas where people discuss their traumas), and as a means (also through soap operas) to share information about sexual health and HIV/AIDS.   In Sierra Leone, the only national radio station is currently managed by the UN peacekeeping mission. As the mission prepares to withdraw, a vital task becomes passing on the radio networks to civilian management that can maintain all the transmission towers, as well as produce content that benefits the whole of the country.  

As I prepare to visit Rwanda next month, my contact has asked me to bring him a used laptop for $200 in my suitcase. “No problem” I said, envisioning tracking one down on   I just hope it doesn’t break too quickly after I give it to him.  I told him that you can now buy a copy machine/fax/scanner/color printer for between $100-$200.  He was very interested, and now I have definitely committed myself to a full suitcase.  I only hope these new machines have a decent shelf life.  I think these machines could definitely offer a lot to development, since in Africa, you generally go to a telecenter to preform tasks of printing, faxing, scanning.  I would love to see broad distribution of these machines there, it could really help small businesses and organizations. 

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