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The Land of a Thousand Hills (Rwanda): Kira Hydock, Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences

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Posted: December 4, 2012

I look forward to returning to Urukundo next summer to see how the agricultural practices are holding up and to witness the progress in animal productivity...

First to start with an introduction:  My name is Kira Hydock, and I am currently a sophomore in the Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences major.

As I set off for Rwanda to help at the Urukundo Children’s Home this past summer, I had no idea what to expect.  Prior to my trip, I had never even been out of the country.  The team members on the trip with me joked that Canada or maybe Cancun would have been better choices for my first international travel experience.  I laughed along, but I knew Africa was where I wanted to be.  Ever since I was in high school, I knew I wanted to go on a mission trip there.  This summer, my dream finally came true.  I was afforded the opportunity to assess the agricultural programs being utilized by the farm manager at Urukundo, and I had the chance to work alongside a retired professor from the University of New Hampshire’s Agricultural College named David Howell.

After an excruciatingly long plane ride, I made it to the country of my dreams.  No picture can do justice to the rolling hills and sky-high mountains comprising the scenery in Rwanda.  With just a first glance at the scenery, I immediately understood why Rwanda is known as “The Land of a Thousand Hills.”  HydockRwanda4.pngI was amazed by the beauty and richness the country had to offer.

Upon arrival at Urukundo, the mission team and I were greeted by the children.  And by greeted, I mean climbed all over and hugged us to death.  They were the most precious, loving children I have ever met.  All of them, even ones that were just 3 years old, spoke surprisingly good English, as well as the local language, Kinyarwanda.  Throughout my 10 day trip, I learned more of the stories behind the children’s lives.  Some of them were at the home because their families were murdered in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  Others had lost their parents to AIDS, while several were simply unwanted by their parents.  No matter what their story, these children had such incredible outlooks on life.  All were enrolled in school, and some were even preparing to head off to University.  They viewed each other as brothers and sisters, and therefore sought to look after one another.

During my first night in Rwanda, I quickly learned the harsh realities of life in rural Africa.  There had been a drought for the past several weeks, as the dry season was still in progress, thereby making water a luxury.  We were lucky to get a trickle from the faucet, and even then more often than not, it was cold water.  So dry shampoo and camping bath wipes it was!  I resigned early in my stay that this was all part of the experience, and that I could make it for 10 days without a hot shower.

HydockRwanda2.pngElectricity was also a thing of want.  We were fortunate enough to be staying in a home built by Belgian landlords during the country’s time of colonialism, so the compound was very nice compared to the surrounding houses.  However, we were not spared from the frequent power outages that plagued the countryside.  Fortunately, solar-powered lanterns were available for nights when the power remained out.  I came to view these times as a blessing; there is something special about eating dinner by lantern light with a bunch of children.  They love finding their shadows on the wall and making shadow puppets!

Despite scarce water and little internet access, the less-than-ideal living conditions were only minor compared to the incredible experiences I had.  On the second day of my stay, Dave and I received a tour of the farm.  It was inhabited by pigs, dairy cows, goats, rabbits, and chickens.  The first glaring offense that Dave and I noted was the absence of water troughs in the pens.  In the rural villages, it is common practice to have animals graze throughout the day.  The problem at the children’s home was the lack of space prevented this practice from being carried out.  Thus, the animals were not receiving the moisture from proper amounts of vegetation in their diet.  Needless to say, providing the animals with a constant supply of water was the first priority on our list.  This was accomplished by purchasing large plastic tubs for the goats and water cups for the rabbits and by constructing watering troughs for the cows by cutting large metal containers in half and welding them to stands.

The next task on our list was to address dermatitis on the pigs.  Such a task was quickly solved by purchasing some vegetable oil and massaging it into their skin.  The non-ag team members laughed that we were basting them up to cook in the sun!  Thankfully, we did not fry any of the pigs, but rather succeeded in resolving their dry skin.

Dave and I also sought to build mangers for feeding the cows, rabbits, and goats, rather than throwing the food on the ground.  Mangers would help prevent wasting feed that would quickly become soiled under the animals’ feet and manure.  In order to build the mangers with as little of a financial burden as possible, we purchased newly split fire wood and some lumber and constructed the mangers ourselves.  They turned out looking pretty good, and they got the job done (which is what matters most).
Finally, in order to ensure the animals were receiving proper nutrition, Dave and I comprised rations for all the animals based on nutritional requirements we found in our research.  We then organized these rations into color-coded buckets, which had the ration formulation on the lid, so as to easily replicate the mixture.

Although we achieved a great deal in our 10 days, there were some minor setbacks.  For starters, none of the farm hands spoke English.  This communication barrier was amusing at times, as I probably looked ridiculous making hand signals and trying to convey instructions without knowing the local language.  Luckily, some of the children, even ones that were 5 years old, helped serve as my interpreters.  Such situations truly tried my communication skills.

There was also a lot of running into town for supplies.  However, this was one of my favorite aspects of the job, as it enabled me to see the countryside, interact with the locals, and learn some of the customs of the people of Rwanda.  HydockRwanda3.pngFor instance, one of the favorite modes of travel, aside from walking, is the “moto-taxi,” which is sort of like a two-person dirt bike that transports people into and out of town.  Another mode of travel that I particularly enjoyed was riding in the bed of a truck.  Coming from Pennsylvania, where it is illegal to have people in the bed of your truck unless working on a farm, I was surprised to learn that such an act was completely legal as long as you did not exceed five people!  I smiled as I contemplated the once-in-a-lifetime nature of riding in the bed of a truck while passing by the hills of little mud houses going into town.

In spite of going to Rwanda with the intention that I would help teach the farm workers how to better care for their animals, I feel that I was the one who learned much more.  I was amazed at the inventiveness and ingenuity of the people of Rwanda with the resources they had available.  Alongside the road, men fixed shoes with old tire scraps and boys used bundles of wires to somehow weld metal together.  There is something to be said about the dedication of the women working in the fields under the hot sun, carrying a baby on their backs.  And despite the apparent lack of luxuries, all of the people I encountered were full of life and happiness.  The entire experience forced me to reflect on the value I place on material possessions and to contemplate the true meaning of happiness.  My time on the farm further instilled the importance of teamwork, as the other team members all pitched in with the projects Dave and I concocted.  Furthermore, the lack of proper materials put my inventiveness to the test.  For these reasons, my experience on this mission trip would be great to discuss in a future job interview or graduate school application.

I look forward to returning to Urukundo next summer to see how the agricultural practices are holding up and to witness the progress in animal productivity.  I cannot wait to go back to the country that stole my heart.