Jim Gavin writes about his experience with the 25th Anniversary Airlift to Rwanda.
It's a long way from Clare to here
I try to make it my business every year to go to Co. Clare – the home of my parents – at least once.
It’s always special going back there but on Monday evening as I exited the tunnel under the river Shannon, crossed the border into Co. Clare and headed for Shannon Airport, I could not but help feel that this was different.
By the time you read this, we will have been on the ground in Rwanda for 24 hours or more
We landed at Kigali Airport with all of 5,300 animals - oblivious to the thunderstorm outside -remarkably calm after being flown at 37, 000 feet on their 11 hour flight from Ireland, interrupted by a one hour period for rest and refreshment at Cairo Airport in Egypt.
The Bóthar Ark carrying the animals is a very special 25th anniversary airlift of 37 in-calf heifers, three bulls for the Rwandan Government National Bovine Breeding Scheme, 260 pigs, 100 goats, and 5,000 chicks. Also on board was 5,000 doses of Bovine Semen for the Rwandan Breeding Programme run by Bóthar’s sister agency Heifer International.
The journey actually started another 24 hours earlier in Co. Tipperary, at the mart in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary.
I haven’t been at a mart since I was a child in West Clare and it brought back memories; mostly of the kindness and friendliness of farmers.
It’s a hugely nostalgic mission for the aid agency Bóthar, which set out life a quarter of a century ago. But it was also nostalgic for me personally as I met famers from near Creagh - my Dad’s homeland - who have donated heifers to Bothar for 21 years, and Míchael Clancy, a vet, who was taught by my grand-mother Kathleen Vaughan and sat beside my mother in Moy national school.
It was also good to meet Seamus Maguire from MSD who were on hand after coming on board as sponsors last week when they heard about this great project.
I also met with Shane McAuliffe a farmer and Robinson 42 helicopter pilot, from Castleisland in Kerry, who had donated his pigs to Bóthar. I listened to schoolchildren from picturesque village of Kilcommon who fundraised for a heifer calf that was on the raised on the farm of Edward Carr, whose daughter was in the local school. I chatted about the football and hurling championships with farmers from Donegal, Carlow, Monaghan, Louth, Sligo, Limerick, Wexford, Kildare, Offaly, Westmeath, Cork, Kilkenny and Wicklow. But in call cases the conversations moved quickly to Bóthar and the trip ahead - to something much more important; their aspiration of giving hope and helping to save lives.
It was humbling, to say the least to meet them. Men and women in what is a very challenging year for farming, particularly dairying. Yet there they were, handing over in-calf heifers worth up to €1,800 perhaps.
The question did enter my head how many of us, in circumstances where we are barely making ends meet, would find it within ourselves to hand over something of that value.
Others gave goats, pigs and chicks; many, many more donated money to buy them.
All in the cargo is worth just short of €350,000; essentially a donation by the people of Ireland to what are among the poorest people of the world, and most of them having been affected by genocide.
During my military service career with Ógligh Na hEireann I spent time on the ground with the United Nations in Africa and I was always drawn to and impressed by the work of Irish charities. But what I like about Bóthar was transparency of their work and their simple concept of helping others to help themselves – giving a hand up; not a hand out. The gift of an income-and-food-producing animal is a masterstroke. It empowers the receiver to make good of themselves; to nurture an animal to produce milk and nutrition on their table, or calf their heifer, and with the money from the sale used typically to help educate their children, right up to third level.
So I wrote to Bóthar and offered my support. We met earlier this year and they were bold enough to ask if I would join them on their 25th anniversary trip. I was glad to be asked to play a part, and I have to admit, not least because of the pilot in me, the thought of flying in an Airbus on a world-record, 41ton, 5,300 multi-species animals 10,000km across the world excited me.
More than anything it was because of what was at the end of the journey.
And I haven’t been disappointed.
Once we got the monumental cargo off the aircraft – and that was an exercise in logistics and team work that had to be seen to be believe – we moved to ‘The Showgrounds’ on the outskirts of Kigali where the cows, bulls and goats were taken to rest up and have some food and water.
And it was then I got the first real sense of just how valuable this cargo is.
When we arrived, local volunteers could be heard chopping up elephant grass for animals I’m assured will be treated like a new family member.
African dancers were on hand to set a heart-thumping tempo as the in-calf heifers trotted down the ramp to their temporary lodgings in their new homeland.
We were told that so important is the cow in Rwandan culture that the native dance is a celebration of their very existence!
Dignitaries were there in their dozens, right up to the Minister for Agriculture – who holds the most important brief in the nation given that the sector underpins the Rwandan economy.
The new arrivals gave an instant seal of approval, very calmly taking to their new surrounds, deservedly drinking back water from their troughs before tucking into their elephant grass with gusto.
As we left, they looked very assured in their pens, facing out onto rich green pastures of Rwanda that they will graze over the coming days before being moved to families.
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The Gift that keeps on Giving
After the high of yesterday’s arrival and the delivery of the 5,300 strong Bóthar cargo of heifers, goats, pigs and chicks to Kigali safe and sound, our first full day here in Rwanda started with a sombre reality.
I was playing football for Dublin when Rwanda was hit by the worst genocide since the Holocaust and that certainly doesn’t seem like 22 years ago.
Not least because the Rwandan genocide was so horrific that it was felt right around the world, including at home in Ireland, despite the 10,000 plus kilometres that separates our two nations.
It says a lot about our society at home that Ireland formulated a response as impactful as Bóthar’s (and other Irish NGOs) for a country we had literally no relationship with. Something to be very proud of.
But the plight that this nation of 12 million people in a landmass the size of Munster in deepest Africa, was so horrific that the Irish were bound to respond.
Genocide is never spontaneous. It is an intentional act of multiple murder, aimed at destroying the presence of the victim group. Its perpetrators do not respect age, gender, occupation, religion or status.
The Rwandan genocide in 1994 was instant. Roadblocks sprang up right across the county with militia armed with one intent – to identify and kill Tutsi. At the same time the Interahamwe began house-to-house searches.
The people on their death lists were the first to be visited and slaughtered in their own homes or in churches where they sought refuge. The perpetrators had promised an apocalypse and the operation which emerged was a devastating frenzy of violence, bloodshed and merciless killing. No Tutsi was exempt.
Many families were wiped out, with no one to remember or document their deaths. The genocide resulted in the deaths of over one million people in just 100 days. To put that in context that is three quarters of the population of Dublin city wiped in 100 days by calculated and coordinated murder.
Reading about it is one thing but when you land in Rwanda on a mission like what I’m on with the Bóthar team, you’re inevitably going to hear about the horror and bloodshed first hand.
And that’s because all of the in-calf heifers, pigs, goats and chicks on this particular trip are being delivered to widows of the genocide.
So, on the morning after the day and night before, we get on the Bóthar bus and travel to the region of Rwamagana in East Rwanda.
It’s about an hour out of the city and we cross through some of the 1,000 mountains that Rwanda is famed for.
The pastures of the deep valleys are lush green, the undulating hills similarly decorated. The soil is deep red in colour and is covered in rice fields, fish farms, banana plantations with legions of men and women in disciplined lines, side by side, working fields with hand tools readying the land for planting.
It’s hard to believe as we drive through these peaceful valleys on the way to meet recipients of Bóthar’s and the Irish people’s generosity, that they ran so red with blood in 1994. The Tutsi men, women and children escaped through these hills and dense forests, some staying there for months after the genocide had ended, simply through fear.
In the rural village in eastern Rwanda we heard of heart-breaking stories of the genocide. Tens of thousands of people had been tortured, mutilated and raped. Tens of thousands more suffered machete cuts, bullets wounds, infection though HIV Aids and starvation.
One story was as tragic as the next. There were many genocide widows. Like a mother whose five children and her husband were butchered in the bloodlust, only getting her husband’s torso to bury but none of her children’s remains were returned.
We hear about a river close by the village where bodies were unceremoniously dumped for crocodiles to feed on. Many families have been wiped out.
But we also hear stories of hope, thanks in no small part to NGOs like Bóthar who have given these Genocide widows hope and enabled them to put their lives back together as best they can in these tragic circumstances.
I met with Genocide widow Berancile Mukarwigema. Her husband, a Tutsi, was hunted down and murdered for nothing other than being a member of the wrong tribe. She and her three young children had nothing. They were barely scraping out an existence, living in a mud hut that she rebuilt after it was burned down in 1994.
Then seven years ago Bóthar stepped in and gave her the gift of an in-calf Irish dairy heifer. Over the years since, that young Irish heifer not alone gave birth to the calf she arrived impregnated with, but four more – one bull and three other heifers.
Berancile told me that it provided her young family with a rich milk supply, six times that of the local cow.
After giving her 1st calf to her neighbours, Berancile sold the two calves and the bull and used the money to put her young children through school and college.
She also built an outhouse for her still bountiful cow and the manure was used to feed her garden and grow banana and potato crops.
There was enough in the proceeds of the sale of the new arrivals for her to build a new home that she proudly showed me, located on the site where her dilapidated mud hut once was.
That’s just one of many such stories of hope, a hope created by Bóthar and their supporters. Reason to be very proud, indeed.
We were brought to meet four more families. All similar stories. Tragic history but bright future.
Such has been the success of Bóthar programmes that there’s even now a communal shed where hundreds of cattle can be kept and fed in individual cubicles by their proud owners.
Later in the evening with Bóthar team, including CEO Dave Moloney and Chairman Harry Lawlor, we attended a ‘pass-on’ ceremony in another village, where female calves of Bóthar cows – the first born female must be passed on to another family – were formally handed over to new owners.
There was a death of a village elder’s relative over recent days and, in tight knit Rwandan communities, this hits hard. It was an emotional ceremony for both the farmer handing over the calf and the recipient of the calf. The village leader and elders all attend. The local women dress in their Sunday best. Yet at the end of the ceremony they sang, danced and smiled with joy in celebration.
Rwanda is building its future society based on an ability to understand and reconcile with its past. The role that Bóthar, Irish farmers and Irish donations play is by giving the poorest people of Rwanda a gift of Irish livestock; a gift that keeps giving!
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Bóthar - A Journey of Rwandan Hope
Rwanda is a country of hills, mountains, forests, lakes, rivers, laughing children, markets of busy people, drummers, dancers, farmers, artisans and craftsman.
There are thousands of hills and amongst them live 12 million people in 26,338 square kilometres, roughly the size of Munster. The land is rich and fertile, and the climate is pleasant.
Yet there are many thoughts and emotions that I bring home from Bóthar’s Rwandan mission of the past five days.
The conclusion to the visit certainly gave us one of those lasting impressions.
A guided tour visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial takes you right to the heart of the absolute horror visited on the people of this tiny nation.
The statistics are shocking. One million people were massacred in 100 days. The murderers used machetes, clubs, guns and any blunt tool they could find to inflict as much pain on their victims as possible.
Neighbours turned on neighbours, friends on friends, even family on their own family members who were perceived to be ‘moderate Hutus’.
The militia set a target of 1,000 killings every 20 minutes in the capital Kigali alone with machete and firearms. Rwanda had turned into a nation of brutal, sadistic merciless killers and of innocent victims, overnight.
It was virtually impossible to visualise that the Kigali of today is any relation to the same city of the genocide just 22 years ago.
In the Children’s Room we see pictures and stories of just a few of the thousands of children who lost their lives in the genocide. We see a photo of two sisters Irene (6) and Uwamezi Umutonin (7). We read their favourite toy was a doll they shared, their favourite was food fresh fruit and that they were “daddy’s girls”. Cause of death: “a grenade thrown into their shower”.
Two year old Hubert Kirenga’s favourite toy was a car, favourite food rice with sauce and his best friend was his sister. It also tells us his last memory was seeing his mother killed before he was shot dead.
They were just among countless thousands of children slaughtered. There were over 300,000 orphans and over 85,000 children who became heads of their households with younger siblings and/or relatives. Over half the children stopped their schooling because of poverty.
A National Trauma Survey carried out by Unicef estimated that 80% of Rwandan children experienced a death in the family during those 100 days. 70% witnessed someone being killed or injured and 90% believed they would die.
As we left this room we saw the stories of the children who survived, and from what we witnessed outside in Rwandan life, those children are committed to living together, not as Hutu or Tutsi, but as Rwandans.
The reconciliation side been remarkable. The gestures of forgiveness astounding; families somehow leaving horrific atrocities inflicted on them by their neighbour – in some cases by close relations - in the past.
That’s the essence of what we were here for; Bóthar and the Irish people have developed a programme that’s helping reconstruct the lives of genocide widows and their families, and of the poorest Rwandan people.
I saw again yesterday how that’s been achieved. Two years ago the aid agency gave an Irish heifer to a widowed farmer with four young children in a remote village of Rwanda.
Today, thanks to the milk she is getting from the cow and the surplus available for sale after she feeds and clothes her children. She has been able to put a water harvester in place, get electricity into her home, and even open - albeit the most basic - hair salon at the side of her mud-bricked house.
Behind the house her an Irish cow grazes happily on elephant grass in an open-sided shed that keeps her perfectly in the shade but with a cooling breeze blowing through.
There are legions like her across Rwanda that Bóthar has done the same for over the past ten years or so. But the work is only beginning because this type of success story is still very much the exception.
In villages like this children get one meal per day. Meat is simply not affordable. Bread costs the same as it does back in Ireland, milk is around €2.50 per litre. But the average income per month is of the order of just €15.
We arrive one community with a box of jerseys and tops kindly given to us by GAA headquarters, who’d heard of our trip just days in advance.
Word of arrival of the ‘Bóthar bus’ in the village spread quickly and within minutes there were 30 or more children running barefoot down the dirt-track that counts for a road, laughing with excitement and anticipation.
We produced a rounders kit and then a football - and the first ever Gaelic football game in Rwanda begins under splendid sunshine.
For all the tragedy, for all the horror, the smiles on these young faces over this precious half hour or so are the images I and others on this trip will hold onto the most.
The faces of many parents may be worn down with sadness but the children have smiles of hope.
Bit by bit, the Irish people, through the inspirational team at Bóthar, are helping those smiles break through.
Just like the meaning of the word ‘Bóthar’, this is a journey. It’s a challenging one but the hard yards are so worth it.
So why would you donate to Bóthar? I’ll let a poem explain the reasons why. It was attached to the paperwork for an in-calf heifer recently donated by a Cork farmer to Bóthar:
“As I was loading up my animal, I thought what she might do;
Bringing dignity to a family, and building their life anew;
For we all are their brothers, and we must show them how;
And that’s the very reason, for the giving of this cow”
This is Jim Gavin, signing off from Rwanda.