It took a month for “starvation” to make a U.S. newspaper headline in the context of COVID-19. Elsewhere in the world, the threat was real within days of nationwide lockdown. Under normal circumstances, people in Nyanza District would work their garden plots and subsist on what was produced. However, the coronavirus that has rewritten life’s daily rhythms in other nations has also disrupted the hardscrabble existence of rural Rwanda in East Africa.
On March 21—with several people testing COVID-19 positive—the government told Rwandans to shelter in place to limit the spread of the highly-transmissible virus. That nationwide initiative may head off a healthcare crisis (287 positive cases and no deaths) but it comes at a high cost.
“Work today to be fed tonight”
“Rwandans typically work today to be fed tonight,” said Clarke Kennedy of The Zinzendorf Mission (ZMission),based in the U.S. “So this has created a serious problem, and people are going without food for days.” Kennedy and his Rwanda consultants (Martha Vetter in South Carolina, Lori Bryan and Godfrey Karema in Rwanda) quickly mobilized a food distribution program for the extremely hungry in the Southern Province.
Their local agency, The Dufatanye Organization (which means “Let’s Join Together”) began their distributions with [members of the agency’s cooperative, the historically marginalized and a community nearby called the Village of Hope] the Village of Hope, the historically marginalized and members of the agency’s cooperative. These ministries sprang from Karema’s recognition in 2003 of the needs of the 1994 genocide survivors, especially widows with HIV and AIDS. The Rwandan government deeded land to the NGO and the village in the terraced slopes nearby. Dufatanye reached out to these people, now named The Village of Hope, and has helped community members with banana and avocado trees, chickens and subsistence kitchen gardens. Zmission joined this effort in 2008.
Over 70 Tons of Food Distributed
Since late-March (through May 14) the ministries have distributed just over 70 tons of food to 24,752 individuals—a statistic that would include giving to people on more than one occasion. The consultants believe that no other NGO’s are working in their area of Rwanda.
“The district authorities are giving us a list of people needing our support,” Karema said. People were issued maize and beans, as well as soap—critical for hygiene to limit the virus’ spread. The giving must be judicious, the consultants agreed. Too much to some could engender the envy of others and even theft.
“Overall, people are very good about sharing what they have,” said Vetter. The area had just come through a harvest, but few had large reserves of the edible beans they’d grown.
Safe Conduct Pass from Police
“We are only able to do this work,” Karema said, “because the local government and police gave us special permission to move and work (following COVID-19 guidelines), so that we save people from starving.” Bryan related an account of a mother and father coping with the lockdown by trying to find food into the night, unwilling to stay home and hear their children’s hungry pleas. An older beneficiary of a distribution told Bryan that he had gone to bed without eating, but “Today I will not go to bed hungry.”
People who would like to help fight the hunger in Rwanda and help keep families from starving can find a thorough description of the project at zmission.org/helprwanda. A donation of $18 allows Dufatanye to provide a family of six with a week’s supply of food (22 pounds corn flour, 11 pounds beans, a 12” bar of soap). Ten families can be fed for $180 and $4,500 can provide food to 250 families for one week.