The lay of the land

By Kari Costanza in Rwanda.

Terrace-farming on Rwanda's lush hills. (Jon Warren/WV)

Terraces on Rwanda's lush hills. (Jon Warren/WV)

It’s hard for us as communicators to quantify our value. We aren’t agronomists or health care experts. We don’t drill deep wells in West Africa or build schools. We just tell stories. We know the stories have value because it’s hard to put a number on World Vision’s work. To our donors, it’s often the people who matter—the child who can now go to school or has clean water. The mother who learned to read or started a successful small business. We search out those people and tell their stories.

It can take a different mindset to recognize a good story. It helps to be a journalist—trained to sniff out news. But sometimes the best questions we ask are the most obvious. Some of my best questions sound just plain dumb.

When we first arrived in Rwanda, we asked the staff to list everything that World Vision has done in the community of Nyaruguru. They told us some wonderful things: Schools had been rebuilt. Water systems had been rehabilitated. Seeds were being distributed with organic fertilizer to bring the land back to life.

But when you’re in a place for a long time, you can forget about the big things. Things you see every day. We saw an example of this last Friday.

We were driving in the morning to a wetlands project when Jon asked about the beautiful terraces that give Rwanda’s green hills their Camelot-like setting. Rwanda is said to have one thousand hills. In Nyaruguru, many of these hills have terraces that stretch down the hillsides to the valleys below. Jon asked if those terraces had always been there. No, the staff person with us replied—they’re new since the genocide. Jon asked if there was a World Vision connection to the terraces. Yes, replied the staff person, World Vision taught the community to make these terraces. Well, that’s quite an accomplishment, we thought.

We arrived at the wetlands project and had to stop thinking about terraces for a moment. The project was so grand. An association called Abishyizehamwe, which means United, made up of 180 men and women, was making bricks. Jon said the scene reminded him of a Cecil B. DeMille movie—hundreds of people, bricks atop their heads, walking them up a flight of stairs to bake in the oven. The scene just needed Yul Brynner in a chariot to make it complete.

Brick-making in Nyaruguru.

Brick-making in Nyaruguru. (Jon Warren/WV)

I talked with the president of the association about the wetlands project. For the last three years, this association has gathered to rehabilitate the wetland, as well as to farm, raise cows, and make bricks and ceiling tiles. Everyone in the group has all the seeds, milk for their children, and manure for their gardens they could ever want. And they sell the rest. The profit last year from their agriculture work alone was $17,000. They made 100,000 bricks that sell at 50 francs apiece. That’s another $9,000. Those are big numbers for a group that meets just two mornings a week to work.

I remembered the terraces, so I asked the president about them. He told me that World Vision taught him back in 2000 to make terraces. Before, people would farm on steep hills. Sometimes they would slip and roll down the hills, breaking their legs or even dying. Frank, the national communicator who is translating for us, used the word “roll” to describe the fall. But then he described what the president actually said: “People would fall down the hill, legs up in the air, then arms up in the air, then legs again, rolling over and over down the hill.” The president said that through terracing, World Vision has changed the landscape of this place. He said that farming on a terrace is like “walking on a road.” People don’t fall, and the soil doesn’t wash away anymore. It’s really remarkable.

Over the next few days we found out some other spectacular things that World Vision has done in Nyaruguru that the staff hadn’t mentioned—maybe because they didn’t realize what good stories they would make—or perhaps because they are too humble. But I have to save the really good ones for my story in the magazine.

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1 Comment

Filed under Burundi/Rwanda, On Assignment

One response to “The lay of the land

  1. I do not profess to be a writer. Unlike you, I cannot use words and phrases to draw the reader into the story. This is the first time I have read your blog and I am hooked. Kari, I felt like I was walking along side you as each word unfolded. Thank you for sharing your journey. Keep the blog going and remember I, and many others, will be living and walking each story next to you! I have your name on my computer so I will remember to pray for you! God Bless you, Kari!

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