The importance of dialogue during COVID-19: observations from Rwanda
ABN’s dialoguing approach is proving beneficial for the holistic health of humans, soil and the environment. The approach is also improving family nutrition and contributing to peace-building and restoration of ties broken in the The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Innocent Musore, Executive Director of ABN partner Global Initiative for Environment and Reconciliation (GER), shares experiences of farmers on the impact of agroecological approaches in Rwanda.
GER, in collaboration with the ABN, promotes agroecology in Rwanda to improve food production, regenerate the soil fertility, recuperate the seed and connect people with nature. Community dialogues, a key ABN methodology for building resilient communities, were adopted by GER in 2017 and mainstreamed into its programs in Bugesera, Ruhango and Muhanga districts. 300 households in 50 vulnerable communities living in semi-urban areas received and applied various agroecological training approaches. As a result, these farmers have reaped great benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Agroecological practices passed on to the communities are environmental conservation, food system management, the revival of indigenous seed, agribusiness and others. Through dialogues, communities involved in GER programs in Rwanda have gradually begun peace-building talks to heal deep wounds formed during the Genocide. This program is helping to improve people’s relations.
A genocide survivor working in Bugesera District observes that agroecological training and practices have removed mistrust and suspicion among members of the groups benefiting from GER projects thanks to working together and sharing their harvest regardless of their history.
During the training and dialogue events, communities describe how nature provides their food, medicine and cultural symbolism, and how their role is to conserve and uphold the connection to nature. After the training, communities pledge to revive indigenous seeds and strengthen the seeds system through seed sharing and community seed banks. Communities also learn how to organize and lead community dialogues to get more youths involved in this program to learn from elders and reduce the intergenerational gap.
Despite the cessation of movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Rwanda, GER recorded some actions from youths who focused on reviving indigenous seeds through their agribusinesses activities. “From the training held in Bugesera, I decided to grow sorghum as the seed species that is becoming rare…it provides food, natural beer and is used in cultural ceremonies…I have grown sorghum on 10 hectares. I believe that the production will play a huge role to avail the sorghum seed and help other people who need to grow sorghum in my community or beyond,” said Safari Desire, a young model farmer from Gasabo District.
Isogi is among the rarest seed species in Rwanda. When you can find it, it is also expensive. “I have decided to grow Isogi, a traditional leaf vegetable, after a training organized by GER. Most of us who are elders need Isogi. But finding it is a hard task because communities no longer grow it. Some young people do not even know it or how it tastes. I am growing Isogi to help the young people to know it, know its nutritional, medicinal and cultural values besides learning it from the books and also help my neighbours to access its seeds. I plan to contribute to the availability and reviving of this vegetable within our community,” explains Aphrodice Mpamyabigwi, an elder from Ruhango District.
The benefits of the project in solving food problems and malnutrition in families are many. During the COVID-19 crisis, the project responded to the food scarcity caused by the Government’s measures to control the spread of the coronavirus. Communities’ continued home gardening provided them with vegetables to enrich their food during the crisis, transforming their families’ nutrition. “I used to feel bad before because my nutrition was not good. Now I eat vegetables from my garden that makes me feel better. This project came when I was pregnant. I do not have any problem with breast milk because I eat enough vegetables. My children cannot suffer any malnutrition disease because they have vegetables in every meal,” says Liberator Mukandamage from Muhanga District.
The project has also improved family relations at both household and societal level. Rwandan society is rife with gender-based violence and family conflicts. The project improved the collaboration between men and women for their families’ development. The project also increased community interactions through sharing the vegetables with those who did not benefit directly from the project.
In addition, the project contributed to the conservation of land and the protection of the environment against chemicals used in conventional agriculture as communities used organic manure and mulches of decomposable grass to grow their food. GER learnt that the approach helped small land to yield more using simple and easily applicable farming practices. It is the best approach for communities to scale up in the fight against malnutrition and food problems, especially in such pandemics like COVID-19 that compromise the human immune system.
Gratitude for timely unity of purpose during COVID-19 crisis
The Government of Rwanda worked hard to provide emergency support for the most vulnerable communities highly affected by the containment measures of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it encouraged community-based solutions to respond to the socio-economic effects of the pandemic to address hunger, poverty, loneliness and depression originating from the fear of the virus. GER’s training in ABN methodologies with funding from AgroEcology Fund helped beneficiaries to have nutritious foods to build their immune system. Swift responses to the food problem and enhancement of community knowledge on agroecology and nature conservation couldn’t have happened without this collaboration.
Local authorities appreciated the project as it contributed to community development done by the people for themselves without leaving anyone behind.
GER’s 4th Strategic Plan for agricultural transformation for 2018-2024 recognizes agroecology as sustainable agriculture. It now needs to be mainstreamed into the District Development Plan using community-based knowledge recommended by authorities. Jean Damascene Sinjyenibo, the Director of Agriculture and Livestock in Bugesera District, agrees. “It is visible that people have a lot of knowledge and skills in this sector that can improve food security through sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation in our district,” he explained during a community dialogue.