Africa Lifelines: Peace Through Empowerment

Muramba, Rwanda – Thunderclouds rolled in from Congo across Rwanda’s red-and-green checkerboard hills, newly planted with corn.

At the Muramba girls high school, students in prim blue skirts
flocked from concrete classrooms to the cafeteria and bowed their heads
over books. Periodic tables. Algebra. English. Anything to get

Here in 1997, men with machetes slaughtered 17 schoolgirls who refused their command to separate into Hutu and Tutsi tribal groups – one episode in the violence killing millions around Africa.

Musing in a patch of sunlight outside the cafeteria, Sister Marie
Donata, ever protective, tried to remain optimistic.

A private Colorado-based group, Engineers Without Borders, is
trying through small-scale power and water projects to encourage
Donata’s girls and 25,000 surrounding villagers to avoid conflict
and violence by improving living conditions. The engineers are
installing solar panels, for example, like the one that provides
the electricity lighting the cafeteria.

Still, Donata winced. She looked at the hills where barefoot
families on overcrowded land compete for space to grow enough food
and eke out an existence, while militias in neighboring Congo keep

“If the poverty is not reduced,” said Donata, 47, who lost
relatives in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, “it will happen again.”

Everywhere, memories gnaw. Villagers veer between normalcy and

“I remember my mother was killed when she was holding me,”
Monique Kubwumukiza, 11, said quietly, fidgeting with her feet and
hugging her sides. That happened in 1998, when Monique was 4.
“They were chopping her eyes and teeth. She died a very painful

After the men killed her mother, Monique ran to an aunt. Then the
men killed the aunt.

Now, as a fourth-grader, Monique writes and draws neatly but seldom
speaks. She refuses to eat, other than nibbling at nuts and corn.

“I’m afraid people will come and kill us,” she said. “So now I
am always telling my brothers and sisters we should not sleep in
the house. We should go sleep in the forest.”

Frances Feeney of Denver was amazed when she visited Muramba in
2003 and saw that villagers had begun self-help projects, producing
soap and honey, weaving mats, hammering furniture. Back in Denver,
Feeney shared what she’d seen with Bernard Amadei, a civil engineer
at the University of Colorado in Boulder who in 2001 founded
Engineers Without Borders USA.

Amadei embraced the challenge of helping villagers whose world
seemed intolerably out of balance. “What is good and bad there? …
We need to empower them with healthy ways of expressing their

Donated medical supplies for Rwanda from another Colorado- based
group, Project Cure, helped win support from Rwanda’s government
for work at Muramba, located in rugged country near volcanoes.
President Paul Kagame visited Denver last year as part of a tour
commemorating Rwanda’s genocide. His government plans to fix the
road so that cars can reach Muramba.

“Small projects that are well thought out and appropriate for
communities can go a long way,” Amadei said. “This decentralized
assistance will solve problems. There’s no corruption involved. The
philosophy of Engineers Without Borders is to be small, under the
radar screen, a stealth approach to international development.”

At headquarters in Longmont, the engineers’ project manager, Meg
VanSciver, fields proposals from villagers all over Africa. The
group relies on private donations of about $500,000 a year.

E-mail and cellphones open new possibilities for villagers to
bypass governments and get help, said VanSciver, a former Peace
Corps worker.

In Muramba, Sister Donata’s colleague, the Rev. John Bosco, 38, a
missionary from Uganda, hustles from project to project.

At one stop, a woman knew the neighbor who slit her husband’s
throat in the genocide. She’d worked out peace with this man.

Now, she wanted to know what she should do at the government- run
“gacaca” – grassroots – public tribunals that began in the area
this year. The tribunals are meant to encourage reconciliation in
villages. She is required to attend and publicly accuse the man of
killing her husband. She worried that this could only bring trouble
to her and her children.

“What would you say to her?” Bosco said.

Then he hurried to a meeting with HIV-infected villagers jockeying
for dwindling sacks of emergency-relief corn meal, and to a
vocational school where a new solar panel from Colorado powers
computers in an administrative office. Farmer Winceslas
Muhawenimana, 40, a father of six who had formed a work crew, was
hoisting rocks and plunging a pick into a steep hillside to clear a
foundation for a new furniture workshop at the school.

An orphan, Pascal, 14, tugged at Bosco’s leg. Pascal lived alone in
a crumbling dirt-floor hut with his brother, Evarist, 7, who had
contracted HIV from their mother before she died in 2001. Their
father died in the war.

“I can’t go home; there’s no food,” Pascal said. Bosco promised
he would visit him later, and went to Pascal’s hut at dusk.

He found Pascal sitting alone in the darkness on a donated gray
blanket amid the fetid, muddy smell of feces. “A wildcat ate my
rabbits,” a distraught Pascal said.

Bosco had given him a pregnant female rabbit to raise in hopes the
boy might earn money for corn by selling rabbits. Villagers here
love rabbit meat.

When Pascal came home from school, he found the hut empty. He
searched banana groves nearby. In one, he found a feral cat chewing
the rabbit’s carcass.

Seemingly endless daily setbacks like this crush hopes. But village
elders say practical help from Americans inspires them.

“We have so many problems,” said Alphonse Nsangirana, 48, a
father of seven working with fellow farmers on a hillside to fire
red clay roof tiles in a homemade kiln.

He pointed at a newly dug ditch where visiting engineers told him
water pipes would be installed. Then, Nsangirana and families here
could drink safe water from a tap.

“If these projects are well done, and people get benefits of light
and water, there’s no doubt, there will be peace and joy,”
Nsangirana said.

“What’s missing is money,” Donata said. Sustained self-help
projects would mean “many who are frustrated could find a job and,
instead of fighting, resolve conflicts” over land.

That would help students study. And students “who pass exams can
help resolve conflicts all over our country,” she said.

Donata’s schoolgirls worked diligently to this end as she spoke.

The visiting Americans are friends who “help us to have a good
life,” said Pamela Iliza Turatsinze, 16. “We will be the future
ministers, presidents and engineers.”

Beside her, Angelique Tnyishime, 18, added: “If those engineers
keep helping us, we will make it to the university. We will graduate
into positions where we can begin to help these poor people.”


Here’s how to contact aid organizations whose work in Africa is reported on in the “Africa Lifelines” series:


Lundy Foundation
300 W. 11th Ave., Suite 15B
Denver, CO 80204
Phone: 303-825-0888, ext. 3
Fax: 303-595-8925

Africa Bridge
P.O. Box 115
Marylhurst, OR 97036-0115
Phone: 503-557-7245

Monday / Malawi

Water for People
6666 W. Quincy Ave.
Denver, CO 80235
Phone: 303-734-3490
Fax: 303-734-3499


Engineers Without Borders – USA
1880 Industrial Circle, Suite B-3
Longmont, CO 80501
Phone: 303-772-2723
Fax: 303-772-2699


Series reporter: Bruce Finley covers international affairs and
security for The Denver Post, which he joined in 1988. He has
reported from more than 30 nations, including his third tour in
Iraq with a U.S. combat unit earlier this year. This is Finley’s
fifth Africa assignment.

He grew up in Colorado, graduated from Stanford University in 1984
and earned master’s degrees in international relations as a
Fulbright scholar in Britain and in journalism at NorthwesternUniversity.

Finley can be reached at

Series photographer: Helen H. Richardson previously traveled to
Thailand and Indonesia to cover the South Asian tsunami and to Rome
for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, among other overseas
assignments for The Post, which she joined in 1993. Her freelance
work has appeared in The New York Times and Christian Science

Richardson grew up in Aspen and graduated from Parsons School of
Design in New York.

Richardson can be reached at

Series editor: Mark Harden

Photo editor: Larry C. Price

Copy editor: Eddie Chuculate

Maps and graphics: Severiano Galván

Multimedia producers: Doug Conarroe, Demetria Gallegos



Cellphones, e-mail and migrants are connecting rural Africa with
urban America, creating new possibilities for action to address
Africa’s pressing problems. Private groups in Colorado and
elsewhere are reaching the villages where two-thirds of Africans
live. “Africa Lifelines,” a three-day Denver Post series,
explores these efforts.

Some quoted material in these reports was translated from Swahili,
Tambuka, Kinyarwanda and local dialects.