By Gabrielle Bourke, Field Partnerships Advisor, World Vision Australia
As my plane descends over the "thousand hills" of Rwanda’s patchwork landscape, I am reminded of the global reach of World Vision’s work across countries, languages and cultures. I think of the history of Rwanda – the lasting impact of colonial oppression, the deep national hurt borne from the 1994 genocide, and the country’s incredible transformation into a thriving economic, cultural and educational hub in East Africa.
World Vision first began work in Rwanda in 1994 in response to the humanitarian crisis that occurred following the genocide. Our work was initially focused on emergency humanitarian relief – providing aid to displaced populations, caring for unaccompanied children, and assisting with community resettlement and peace-building.
Although the brutality and tragedy of genocide remains fresh in the Rwandan memory, it has also been a powerful catalyst for peace-building nationwide. The resilience of the Rwandan people and their insistence upon peace is perhaps best illustrated in the Rwandan practice of umuganda. On the last Saturday of each month, the Rwandan people come together to clean streets, dig trenches, paint classrooms and construct health centres – volunteering their time for the benefit of the community. The practice of umuganda speaks to the commitment of the Rwandan people to building a future of hope and empowerment.
In 2000, World Vision’s work in Rwanda switched from humanitarian relief to long-term development. We now work with over 30 communities to find long-term solutions to poverty and injustice.
Off the tarmac and into the field, I spent several days learning about World Vision’s work in Rwanda today. On the outskirts of the nation’s capital, Kigali, World Vision supports three communities in child-focused development. During my field visit, I met with the Kigali Program Manager and was introduced to the program team – comprising technical experts, program leads and administrative staff.
The local staff shared their success stories and lessons learnt from implementing programs focused on education, health, WASH (water, hygiene and sanitation), livelihoods development and food security.
They explained the role of World Vision in building and resourcing local classrooms, providing training and employment to teachers, advocating for early childhood education, and supporting "community knowledge centres" for vocational training. I learnt of our work in partnering with health clinics, training community health workers and engaging in long-term advocacy to bring clean water to local communities. I was inspired to hear that World Vision has helped to create 200 businesses through VisionFund and has empowered local farmers to strengthen the viability and sustainability of agriculture.
I also travelled to a local health centre and primary school. One of the most striking aspects of my visit was the "normalcy" of life that surrounded me. It was wonderful to see both health and education facilities functioning as I would hope them to be. At the health centre, a waiting room of mothers, children and the elderly, patients being tended to in various rooms, a locked storeroom of medical supplies. At the primary school, the quiet hum of classroom activity, the exuberance and excitement of the youngest class singing and dancing with their teacher, and children playing and laughing outdoors as school finished for the day. Both were exactly as I would hope for them to be – and it was perhaps this normalcy that made them so exceptional.
Having visited, lived and worked in various "developing" contexts internationally, I can attest that the progress achieved by World Vision and the local community in Kigali is remarkable. The achievements of the community since the early 2000s are a testament to World Vision’s sustainable and collaborative approach to development.
My discussions with World Vision staff highlighted the importance of partnering with the communities in development practice. The Kigali Program Manager considered the centrality of collaborative partnership to be a key achievement of the Kigali community projects. He reflected on previous development work that would see non-government organisations build a health centre or school, only to be frustrated when the community did not take ownership for ongoing care, staffing and upkeep.
According to local staff, working in partnership with the locals ensures shared accountability and program sustainability. It also helps to avoid conflict, as pre-arranged contracts determine individual and shared responsibilities. It was inspiring to see local recognition of the value of "partnered development", as this holds great promise for mainstreaming this approach in locally-led development of the future.
My experience in Kigali underscored the lasting and tangible impact of World Vision’s work in Rwanda. Our achievements in Rwanda have relied upon collaboration and shared vision – the umuganda that sees everyday Rwandans coming together for a common purpose. At its core, successful partnership in Rwanda has depended upon the cooperation of a people who are motivated and empowered to lead positive change.
Rwanda is known as the "land of a thousand hills" – yet the Rwandan people will tell you that their country is really the "land of a thousand smiles". This speaks not only to their kindness and hospitality, but to their insistence upon peace and generosity as a way of life. The Rwandan people have emerged from tragedy to build a community of hope, resilience and empowerment. World Vision has walked alongside Rwanda in this transition and will continue to work towards a brighter future for Rwandan children and their families.
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