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.


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.

A bit of Swenska före kongressen (Swedish before congress)


Cheat sheet No. 1

In anticipation of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ 2012 congress in Stockholm, Sweden in August, we had a chance to chat with our Swedish colleague Magnus Stark and learn a few key Swedish words and phrases. I haven’t included all of the phrases Magnus taught — some of them you’ll have to figure out on your own.

Vad heter du? — What is your name?
Jag heter Allison — My name is Allison
Tack — Thanks
Tack så mycke — Thank you very much
Snälla – Please
Jag dricker öl – I drink beer
Skål – Cheers

The early bird registration deadline for IFAJ 2012 in Sweden has been extended to March 31, so there’s still time to register and take advantage of the reduced rates. Details are at the congress website, Registration remains open for the pre-congress tour of Finland and the post-congress tour of the Island of Gotland, Sweden.

Cheat Sheet No. 2


Wordless Wednesday

A delicious lunch hosted by the German Provincial Stands of Northrhine-Westfalia. Pork, sauerkraut and beets. Delicious!

As agricultural journalists, food usually ends up playing an important part of our meetings. Farmers, processors, chefs and hosts are usually anxious to showcase the food they’ve had a hand in creating. Here’s a look at some of the food we ate last month during the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) executive meeting in Berlin, Germany, held during International Green Week.

This was like a custard or cheesecake, with raisins and apple syrup. The apply syrup was divine, but I wasn't a huge fan of the rest of it. However, certainly appreciated the hospitality!


Lunch at Switzerland stand - sausage, risotto, broccoli and carrots. We started with a green salad and rolls.


Since the 2012 IFAJ Congress is in Sweden, we were hosted at a reception at the Scandinavian Embassy and treated to some traditional food. Clockwise from the top, reindeer (which didn't look as much like liver as it does in this photo and tasted quite nice), risotto, shrimp, chocolate cup with a dollop of sour cream topped with cloudberry, white fish, caviar, smoked salmon, turnip, carrots and carrot puree and a potato dish. In the centre is a slice of moose meat. Thanks to colleague Adrian Krebs for hunting down the food while I babysat the drinks.


Journalists work to find the stories… but sometimes the story finds us

As journalists, it’s our job to find stories. We’re always searching out the news, looking for the great yarns and the colourful characters who spin the tales.

Every once in a while, we`re lucky enough to have the story find us.

That`s what happened earlier this month. I was in Berlin, Germany, attending executive meetings of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, held during International Green Week.

Green Week bills itself as the world`s largest fair for food, agriculture and horticulture. The size is overwhelming — the halls cover 28 acres and features 100,000 foods and beverages from around the globe. Every step brings a new aroma of kitchen smells from a different country, a new array of colours as merchants model traditional clothing and new sounds of food sizzling and music from the homeland blasting over crowd.

After our IFAJ executive meetings, my colleagues, Marianne Mork from Norway, and fellow Canadian Owen Roberts and I ventured off to walk around the show, eventually finding our way to Marianne`s “home” at the Norway booth and sharing a toast over a few glasses of Linie Aquavit. As we stopped to let our senses catch up with our minds and absorb what was going on around us, we slipped onto the sheepskin covered benches nestled in a corner to sip the spicy Norwegian drink. A nod to the two men sitting at the next table and it wasn’t long before they had joined us. Introductions were made and we were happy to find out that one of the men was the distiller and master blender for Linie Aquavit, Halvor Heuch.

Marianne and Owen learn about the magic of aquavit

As we asked questions about the creation of Linie Aquavit, Mr. Heuch patiently told us about the process, sharing with us the mystic about how potato mash is carefully stored in matured sherry casks. Caraway, dill, aniseed, fennel are added, adding to the flavour. He told us the liquor is shipped around across the equator, twice, and the constant rolling, changes in temperatures and humidity are what set Linie Aquavit apart from other aquavit brands.

As he talked and explained the process, we sampled the liquor along each step of the process, noting the complexity of the additional flavours and rolling the golden liquid on our tongues, noticing the spices. Mr. Heuch passed us samples of the seeds, vials of concentrated liquids added to the mash and brought the creation of Linie Aquavit to life for us, step-by-step. The magic was unfolding.

Halvor Heuch, Distiller/Master Blender, Linie Aquavit

It was a surprising and wonderful pause in our day. We were late for dinner, but we had gained a new and inside appreciation for a Scandinavian liqueur from one of the master creators. It was certainly a moment when we were happy to be farm journalists, and thrilled that this was one of the times the story had found us.

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday

(I’ve made the somewhat spontaneous leap from Blogger to WordPress, so acknowledging that it’s no longer Wednesday, I’m giving this a try with yesterday’s post. Cheers – A)
I spent the past week in Berlin, Germany, attending executive meetings of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. We were hosted by International Green Week, the world’s largest food, agriculture and horticulture show. The show features exhibitors from around the world, with many selling food and showcasing the agricultural specialties of their part of the world.
420 varieties
This lovely German potato farmer seemed thrilled that I came to visit his booth in the agricultural section of International Green Week. He proudly told me that they had 420 varieties of potatoes on display.
Dutch Tulips
Guess which country had the large tulip display? Holland, of course.
Pakistan's booth had a heavy emphasis on food traceability and food safety.
These guys didn't appear very impressed with International Green Week.

Farmers work together

It’s pretty cool to watch a group work together — especially when farmers band together to accomplish a task.

Many are self-proclaimed loners who admit to having to work a bit to share ideas with each other. But in this case, farmers in Ontario are teaming up in an attempt to set a new world record by harvesting 160 acres of soybeans with more than 100 combines in under 10 minutes.

The record attempt is part of Harvest for Hunger, a unique project organized by five local area farmers — Richard Van Donkersgoed, Peter Rastorfer, Mike Koetsier, Randy Drenth and John Tollenaar — to raise funds for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and help end global hunger.

Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers will sell the harvested soybean crop in a live unreserved charity auction during the event, with all proceeds going to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. The Canadian International Development Agency will also match proceeds raised in the auction.

Harvest for Hunger is a collaborative community effort involving more than 300 volunteers and more than 100 combines. Everything has been donated including the use of the land, field work, seed, fertilizer, crop protection, fuel and crop scouting. Ritchie Bros. is donating its auction services, staff and an auctioneer to support the event.

The harvest will yield about 8,000 bushels of beans which will be divided and auctioned in lots ranging in size from one bushel to 1,600 bushels (enough to fill a 40 tonne truck). Some of the crop will be sold as crushed beans for soybean meal or Identity Preserved beans (non-genetically modified beans that can be exported). Bidding on lots will be take place on-site during the Harvest for Hunger event. Each lot will be sold to the highest bidder, with no minimum bids or reserve prices.

“All the funds raised from the harvest will help the Canadian Foodgrains Bank provide critical food aid to drought ridden areas such as Ethiopia and Kenya,” said Richard Van Donkersgoed, Fundraising Coordinator for Harvest for Hunger.

Harvest for Hunger will take place on Highway 23, just one kilometre north of Monkton at noon on Friday, Sept. 30. The public is invited to watch the soybean harvest and bid in the live charity auction. Lunch and drinks will be available by donation. Local dignitaries will also be on-site to determine whether a new harvesting world record is set, based on time and acreage.

“Community events like Harvest for Hunger speak to the strong heritage of Canadian farmers feeding the world,” said Jim Cornelius, Executive Director, Canadian Foodgrains Bank. “We are grateful for the volunteers and donors who are working together in support of our mission to end global hunger.”

The Canadian Foodgrains Bank is a partnership of 15 churches and church agencies working together to end world hunger through the collection and donation of grain and cash. To date, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank has provided more than one million tonnes of food to people in 80 countries around the world. Primary support for the organization comes from growing projects with farmers and communities in Canada’s agricultural sector.