Rwanda: Is it safe?

Brow furled and concern in their voice, “Is it safe?”

That was the most common reaction I received when I told people about going to Rwanda on a media tour with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. I knew that under their concerned and quizzical faces, they were thinking about the 1994 genocide when nearly a million people were killed in only a few short weeks.

Admittedly, that was my first thought too when, out of the blue one evening, Amanda, the communications person from CFB called and asked if I was interested in going. “Give me a few days to think about it,” I said, as I simultaneously Googled “Rwanda” to check out the safety of the central African country that’s a third of the New Brunswick. No current news stories came up and just about all of the other hits were connected with the infamous genocide, where, in April 1994, years of ethnic tensions boiled over in a state-orchestrated genocide. The nearly one million dead included approximately three quarters of the Tutsi population who were brutally slaughtered in only 100 days. Remains are still being found today around the country and therefore, a mass grave remains open at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali.

The entrance to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Peace and reconciliation seem to be woven into the existence of Rwandans.

We learned that following the genocide, Rwanda struggled with how to deliver justice and punish perpetrators, and at the same time, help survivors heal. In 2002, the government launched the Gacaca (pronounced Gah-cha-cha) Courts, a community restorative justice system. Survivors, perpetrators and witnesses in villages gathered together with a locally-chosen judge and talked about what happened between April and June, 1994, establishing a truth, and eventually, likely still, healing.

One of our hosts told us that in the years after the genocide, all high school graduates continued with two further years of school with peace and reconciliation learning. The education continues today, but since today’s parents have gone through training in the years just after the genocide, it’s now a two week program. The divide between the Hutus and Tutsis is a thing of the past. One Rwandan told us it’s illegal to ask another their heritage. “We are Rwandans,” he told us.

As for safety, the city and country seems to have that well in hand. The tribal tensions have apparently dissolved after extensive reconciliation that continues today. In Kigali, there is a police officer at every intersection. Larger shopping malls and department stores have security at the doors, checking bags just before visitors pass through metal detectors. Where many African countries come to a halt once the sun sets, our hosts assured us it’s safe to be out after dark while in Rwanda.

Kigali is often cited as one of the cleanest cities in Africa. Plastic bags are banned – customs officers seize and shred them at the airport if they catch you with one – and in the days we spent driving through the city, it was common to see workers sweeping sidewalks or collecting litter.

The city was obviously and impeccably clean.
The city was obviously and impeccably clean.

The country also practices umuganda, when, on the last Saturday of each month, neighbourhoods come together for a community clean-up. Everyone between the ages of 18 and 65 is obligated to participate in umuganda.

It was certainly a country I felt safe in the entire time I was there. And the level of cleanliness is something to be proud of.

The sense of pride the Rwandans have is hard earned and well deserved. Over the 10 days I spent in the country, dozens of residents often ended conversations sending me and the rest of the group off with a request that we become ambassadors for the country and tell the world about what’s happening in Rwanda. Sometimes they were referring to the hunger and drought in the rural areas. Other times, they were referring to  tours or hotel stays. Either way, it was always said with a smile.


Reverse culture shock

It hit hard and fast. I still have it and I have no idea how long it will last. I kind of hope it lasts forever.

I woke up yesterday morning, comfortable in my own bed and thought how much I missed my pillow while I was in Rwanda. I grabbed a quick shower then struggled to find just the right shirt to wear before running an errand. I used the toilet before I left the house, flushed, washed my hands then used the Starbucks app on my iPhone to place my latte order. As I got into my SUV parked in the attached garage, I wondered what we would have for supper and whether I should stop by the grocery store and pick something up.

Then I started to cry.

I have reverse culture shock.

The comparison of the excess in which we live in contrast to the poverty I left in Rwanda is stark.

Absolutely every move I made was based on privilege. My warm bed, clean sheets, running water, indoor plumbing, closet full of clothes, vehicle, cell phone and even the ability to have a choice of what to eat for dinner is a result of what I have – what we have as a family – and I don’t think we’re all that different from many of our peers. Compared to the families I visited in Rwanda, our lives here in Canada are extravagant and excessive.

The Canadian Foodgrains Bank invited me to participate in a media tour of Rwanda to look at where money raised by supporters of the non-government organization goes and how Canadian farmers doing their part to help end world hunger.

For many Rwandan families, there is no opportunity to wonder what’s for supper tonight. The question is more likely to be whether there will be supper at all.

For the large part, Rwandans are subsistence farmers – they farm in order to survive. There is frequently no extra food leftover to sell for profit; few jobs to help make ends meet. When we asked one farmer what the family does during the dry season when there are no crops, she said they usually go from eating two meals a day to one meal a day.

Rwanda, including its capital city Kigali, is a densely populated country
Rwanda, including its capital city Kigali, is a densely populated country

Rwanda is a densely populated country. In the east, there are fewer people as it’s the region hardest hit by drought and changing weather patterns due to climate change. In the west, however, where the rainforests feed into rivers at the foot of volcanic mountain range, the land is more lush, and therefore, has a higher population.

Overall, 11.6 million people call Rwanda home, compared to 35.7 million in Canada. Size, though, is the difference. Rwanda is a third of the size of New Brunswick. While Canada has a population density of approximately 3.8 people per square kilometre, in Rwanda, that same amount of land has a density of 445 people. Farmers commonly work on as little as a quarter of a hectare – about .6 of an acre – to feed a family of six. Maybe both the mother and father have jobs – or maybe not.

Rwandans wear the one or two outfits they own. They have no running water or, if they do, must boil it before consumption. In the countryside, their toilets are pits and in areas where there’s assistance from aid groups, hopefully a bucket of water and some kind of soap for hand washing outside the latrine.

They haul water, some from a distance of up to five kilometres, tend the crops on their small plots of land, pray for rain, try to manage through scorching temperatures every day and hope there’s enough food to feed their children.

Despite this marginal existence, the people of Rwanda met us  with smiles and handshakes. The farmers we visited openly showed us their plots of land and proudly told us about the work they’re doing to feed their families. They talked to us about how their children, previously plagued with gastrointestinal problems or eye infections, are healthier because of the food they eat. The farmers took us into their kitchen gardens where they grow cabbage and onions and nutrient-dense foods like carrots and spinach – and talked about collecting rain water during the rainy season in order to keep their gardens growing during the dry season.

Rwandan farmers happily shared a taste of their crop.
Rwandan farmers happily shared a taste of their crop.

They shared.

In one community, the farmers donated corn for a simple meal, which we ate while seated on basic wooden benches in the living room of one of the farmer’s homes. The leftover corn was shared with others in the community. There was no waste.

To be fed by people who don’t have enough food to always feed their children was a stunning experience. The desperation that built within me over the week in Rwanda and that bubbled up inside of me yesterday morning is lessened when I recall the giving spirit and kind smiles with which that corn was served. While the poverty was so clearly evident throughout my visit to Rwanda, the farmers we met aren’t letting it overshadow their existence. They are resilient. It is what it is. They get up again tomorrow and work hard.

The contrast to our reality in Canada, though, is alarming. I now look around my home at every single item and wonder now how necessary it is in my life. I’m deliberately avoiding grocery shopping so I can use what’s in the fridge and freezer. I’m uncertain where this reverse culture shock will lead me, but at the very least, I hope it will bring about some personal reflection as I share some of the stories of the Rwandan people I met.

Sharing Maize
Having a taste of corn, grown by farmers who struggle to grow enough food to feed their families, was an amazing experience.

Who motivates you?

“Don’t tell me it can’t be done. Tell me how we can work together to make it happen.” – me, about every other week (is it too vain to quote myself on my own blog?)

I draw a lot of my energy from others. Attending writers’ conferences, lunch with like-minded business people, visiting farms… all (and more!) start my mind racing and the ideas flowing. My favourite scenario is to gather with a group of colleagues and start brain-storming. Once the collaboration starts, the project unfolds and the energy builds. Then — there’s no stopping us!

Hopefully, I return some of that same energy to others.

Good energy feeds off itself, just like negative energy does. If you hang out with nay-sayers who always have an excuse for why that idea won’t work or why that suggestion is bad, then I suggest you find a new crew to spend your valuable time with.

I had lunch today with two people who share my attitude — everything is possible. It may take a lot of hard work and determination to get it done — but believing in your dreams is the first, and most important step, in making them come true. We weren’t even talking about a specific project today, but because of our common attitudes, I left ready to take on anything and make it all happen for me in my business.

And that is what’s called a power lunch.

Connecting the Community

I have a fear of commitment.

I love the freedom and spontaneity of no commitments. I thrive in being able to pick up and go as the mood strikes. Give me 20 minutes, and I’m ready to go.

If I commit to nothing, I can do anything.

That’s why I’ve never bought in to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. While I love the idea of a weekly injection of farm-fresh fruits and veggies, we spend most of the summer on the road. We camp. We take day trips. We take extended camping trips for days. Last summer, between family vacation and work-related travel, I was home for six non-consecutive days over a 30-day period.

CSA won’t really work in this house.

Enter Fredericton-based Real Food Connections. Order your veggie box weekly. And, as of last week, they deliver to Moncton. It’s a perfect way for those of us who fear long-term commitments but want to eat fresh, local food. The uncertainty of not knowing exactly what will turn up in the box totally feeds my love of surprises.

As I was savouring the idea of RFC starting delivery to Moncton, I realized I would finally be able to have some Local Valley Beef of my own to cook. Owned by CJ and Jennie MacLeod, the cattle are raised near Centreville, N.B.

CJ was mentored by an old friend of my husband’s and we all mourned when Bill died last year. CJ’s high school principal was the best man at my parent’s wedding. One of my farm writer colleagues is a former classmate of his and another farm writer colleague knows CJ from a previous job. There are probably more connections waiting to be discovered.

Farmers — and other businesses — hear all of the time about the need to make connections. You know: tell your story and let the world know more about farming.

I completely agree with the need to tell your stories. You have awesome stories to tell and customers indeed want to know where their food comes from. Luckily, tools like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and blogs help your story-telling a bit easier to facilitate (especially after you learn how to use them effectively!).

But don’t feel like you need to stop at social media for telling your story. There are other ways to make connections; real-world moments that are just as, if not more, valuable.

Going to church, participating in your kids’ sports activities, joining the local chamber of commerce or a service group… these are ways to create a solid network of non-farming people around you.

By telling the story of Canadian agriculture within your broader community, you draw non-farmers into your community circle. The overlapping communities create an environment of mutual support and respect.

It was a collection of serendipitous circumstances that will result in me enjoying some nice barbecues this summer while I travel. And while Community Supported Agriculture vegetable boxes aren’t something that fits with my life right now, certainly supporting my community of agriculture is.

Twitter Terms

Retweet and hashtag, MT and FF… social media is just as jargon-filled as agriculture!

Here’s a quick Twitter glossary to help you out.

  • Tweet: a posted message on Twitter
  • Retweet (RT): reposting, word for word, what someone else has posted on Twitter. Be courteous and recognize the original source, prefacing the tweet with “RT”
  • Modified Tweet (MT): sometimes tweets need to be shortened in order to fit into the 140 characters. Taking out words or reworking someone else’s message a bit is a MT. Replace “RT” with “MT” to acknowledge the original source
  • Direct Message (DM): these are private messages between yourself and one of your Twitter followers, or someone who follows you. DMs are only possible between those who follow each other. Excellent way to carry on a brief, private conversation. Still limited to 140 characters
  • Hashtag: The number sign – # – is called a hashtag in the Twitter-verse. It’s a way of tagging a word so that others interested in the same topic can use the search function to find tweets or interest. #farm, #ag, #cdnag, #westernag, #Ontag, #atlntcanag are some common ones you may be interested in. Hashtags can also be used as a subtle way of making a joke. “13-y-o kid wants an iPhone 5 for Xmas #FatChance”
  • Newsfeed: you’ve clicked “follow” to create a group of people on Twitter who you follow. Your newsfeed is their tweets coming in to you.
  • Favourites: in your newsfeed, under someone’s tweet, there is a star, which you can click on to favour someone’s tweet. This is a great way to either indicate that you like what they said. Other times, the tweet may contain a link to a blog post or a news story that you want to read or remember. By clicking the star and favouring the tweet, it bookmarks the tweet and allows you to find it again later.
  • TY: Thank you. Also common: thx. When there are only 140 characters, word frugality is a necessity.
  • YW: You’re welcome.
  • #FF: Follow Friday. This is a great way to find new followers and recognize those you already follow. There are a few ways to make #FollowFriday work for you.

1. Create a short list of about four followers and simply say something like “#FF to …”

2. The first way doesn’t tell me, as one of your readers, about why to follow these people you’re suggestion, so I like to put something like “#FF hi to great Cdn #farmers…”

3. You can also create a blog post and list your #FF picks and add a sentence about why you follow each of them. Not as effective, though, because it’s unlikely readers will read your tweet then click to go someplace else to read your list.

The Atlantic Canada Farm Writers’ Association presents: Building your Communications Toolbox

2012 Professional Development Day

Wednesday, December 12, 2012 ~ 10:00 am – 3:00 pm

Schnitzel Haus Restaurant*

153 Aulac Road, Aulac New Brunswick

 9:30 –   10:00 AM          Registration

10:00 – 12:00 PM           The Social Shift –Communicating is not what it used to be. We’ve evolved to an on-demand   reader who wants their news immediately, and wants to share their views right   away, in real time. What are you doing to keep up? Social media guru Andrew   Campbell, Fresh Air Media, will highlight the social media shift and how   it will affect you, your organization or business, and more importantly, your audience. He’ll also cover some important how-to ideas when talking about your brand, and how to take advantage of tools that are free to use.

12:00 – 1:00 PM             Buffet lunch – Enjoy the delicious variety of   food and mingling 

1:00 – 3:00   PM             Refreshing Newsletters –Want to add more oomph to your newsletter? Have it read more? Is it effectively spreading the word? Emily Brennan, associate with Cape Consulting Group will share her experiences developing and re-jigging newsletters for clients. She’ll also cover tips and tricks for organizing content and   designing a style that invites your reader.

Cost to attend   (payable at registration): $30, includes buffet lunch

Everyone is welcome! If you do any kind of communications work in agriculture, whether it’s direct market sales to consumers, newsletters for your ag organization membership or social media for your farm group, come and build your communications toolbox.

To help ensure your lunch, please register BEFORE Friday, December 7

with Andy Walker at
(Please indicate any food allergies or restrictions)

*Directions to Schnitzel Haus Restaurant

From NS and NB

  • From  Trans Canada Highway 2, take exit #513A (Aulac)
  • Merge/turn right off the ramp onto Highway 16
  • At the stop sign, you will see the restaurant directly in front of you (~ 100 m)

From PEI

  • Travel west from the Confederation Bridge on NB-Highway 16 towards Aulac (~ 65 km)
  • The highway will end at a stop sign directly in front of the restaurant.

Social Media: Use Your Twitter Lists

I’ve decided to start a new feature on this blog by posting a social media tip that I’ve found particularly helpful in this spinning technology-driven era.

So, here we go:

I’m a huge believer in using the list feature on Twitter. It helps organize the conversations that are coming in to your news feed. I find lists also help me focus the messages that I’m sending out. If I spend a lot of time reading my Atlantic Canada list — most of whom are not farmers — then my tweets tend to be more about more every day events and happenings. If I’m only reading my Canadian Farmer lists, then that’s where my mind is, that’s where I’m gathering my information and that’s what I’m tweeting about.

Keeping up on lists is an important for time management. It’s far easier to organize and sort people as you follow them then it is to go back through several hundred. Also remember that you can only list 500 tweeps under each list heading. One of my farm writer colleagues reorganized his Canadian Farmer list into sector headings: Dairy, Livestock and Crops. So when you’re creating lists, think ahead a bit to who you may follow and organize your lists into specific, yet not constricting, headings.

You can only create lists and sort those you follow on Twitter. You can also select, on creation of the list, whether your lists are public or private. Another Canadian farm writer on Twitter apparently didn’t know that lists could be private, as I was checking out his lists and found myself, as well as other colleagues, on a list he called Writers Who I’ve Blocked. Your Twitter followers can subscribe you your lists, so they will  receive the news feed from this list, even though they may not follow everyone on the list. As well, just as you can list who you follow, you can also be listed by those who follow you. I’m always interested to see which headings I’m classified under and what label I wear for others.

Being on a list helps your Twitter message be heard. One colleague on Twitter appeared to me to only post a few updates a day. Considering that he’s widely known as an expert in social media, I kind of always wondered why he wasn’t doing a better job at getting his message out. Well, it turns out he was doing a great job, but I was just missing all of his posts as he wasn’t included on any of my lists. Now that I have him tagged and sorted, I’m discovering that he has all kinds of things to say. Before, he was just getting lost in the fray.

Fighting for ag

A high school in Sussex, New Brunswick is fighting to keep its agricultural class.

According to a story at CBC news, a teacher at the school was told the Agriculture 12-0 class would be cancelled. A campaign to keep the class extended its life by another year, but the long-term future of the program hasn’t been decided yet by the Department of Education. The department did, according to the story, suggest turning the Agriculture 12-0 class into an environmental science class, with a two-week unit on agriculture. In an effort to maintain the class, students and teachers have planted a garden on the school property and they’re hoping that move will help sway the province into keeping the Agriculture 12-0 class as is.


At almost the same time the students in Sussex were unveiling their new garden, Farm Credit Canada released its twice-a-year Farmland Values Report. The report started in 1990, and twice a year, 245 benchmark farm properties are appraised for their value. The selected properties represent the most prevalent  classes of agricultural soil in each part of the country, says FCC, and changes in value are weighted based on cultivated farmland per acre.

FCC found that New Brunswick farmland values were unchanged during the first half of 2012, following a 1.3 per cent increase in the second half of 2011, and no change in the first half of that year. Farmland values have increased or remained static in New Brunswick since reaching a peak increase of 6.3 per cent in the last half of 2008.

Sussex has long been known as one of New Brunswick’s strongest agricultural areas and as the milk producing hub of the province. But according to FCC’s report, “the area continues to see an ongoing trend of large acreages and former farmland purchased for rural residential use and hobby farming. Agriculture transactions were limited by this type of activity, along with the expansion of potash mining in the area. Moreover, dairy farm expansions in this area were limited as a result of the lack of available production quota.”

Nationally, we’re seeing a shift away from agriculture too. My colleague Owen Roberts, The Urban Cowboy, writes about a major change at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto.

So if some of the statistics show a decline in traditional farming in Sussex, is it reasonable to teach students about agriculture? Or is it time to move agriculture to the history class instead?


Agriculture needs the support of community, and that means including it as a high school course in agriculturally rich areas and keeping its name in traditional agricultural-related events.

The agriculture landscape of Canada is changing but the change should be considered an opportunity.  If there are an increasing number of hobby farms in the Sussex area, purchased by the parents and grandparents of the students who attend Sussex High School, then an agriculture course is key to helping the younger generation learn a bit about farming. By nurturing the family’s existing desire for rural life as they start their new home in the country, agriculture in the high school could turn the love for gardening or a backyard chicken flock into a career choice for the students.

How do you promote agriculture?

Loved these nice signs at the farm gate that welcomed us!

Open Farm Day was held in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba on Sunday. In the Maritimes, the sun was shining, the skies were blue and the breeze was brisk. It was a perfect day for a trip to the farm.

Even though I write about agriculture, I don’t live on a farm and I don’t have any relatives close by who farm. I try to make my kids aware about where their food comes from, but it’s a constant discussion, isn’t it? There isn’t a lot of ag education going on in my kids’ school, so Open Farm Day is a great chance for a bit of education, mixed in with a lot of fun.

Each of the farms had lots of great promotional material about agriculture — word searches, colouring books, fact sheets. My daughter scooped up all of the information she could find and talked about sharing it with some of her friends. I think next year, my husband and I will each take a carload of kids and their friends and head out to area farms during Open Farm Day.

So what do you do to educate the kids you know about food? What do you do to educate their friends?

In areas of the world where agriculture is more prominent, it may be easier to get in touch with farming. But agriculture in Atlantic Canada is small (but strong!). It takes a bit more effort to get our kids to link to their food.

That’s where the parents and the community come in to help. Whether it’s a community garden at the school, inviting a farmer in for Career Day or taking our kids to the corn maze, helping kids recognize, appreciate and know where their food comes from is an important job.

My son was endeared by this calf at Waldrow Dairy, near Sussex, N.B.
This calf was really more interested in seeing whether my daughter Olivia had a bottle of milk than she was in having her photo taken. Perryhill Farms, near Sussex, N.B.

Celebrate Farmers!

Here’s a great Open Farm Day video from Nova Scotia, but the event is just as amazing in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba. Open Farm Day is Sunday, Sept 16.

For details about Open Farm Day, check these websites:
New Brunswick Open Farm Day

Prince Edward Island Open Farm Day

Nova Scotia Open Farm Day

Manitoba Open Farm Day