Rwanda 25 years on: Saved by the milk of human kindness

Rwanda 25 years on: Saved by the milk of human kindness
SUPPORT NETWORK: (L-R) Beatrice Mukambonera, Jacqui Ritchie, Graeme Moore, Katy Beatton, Bobby Rich and Damascene Ntambara, who runs Msaada’s charitable work on the ground

JUNE 2012 was the month my perspective on life, and specifically Africa, changed for ever. Had I ever fully understood what the situation was?

I had thought so. I had watched Comic Relief every year, even been lucky (and old) enough to attend Live Aid in 1985, but it was only when I met Graeme Moore that I heard real stories about the real people that he had met. The power of these stories was so great that I felt I could almost touch it.

Graeme, 72, is a Tunbridge Wells businessman and former restaurateur with whom I liaised about fundraising events. He told me about Msaada – which means ‘share the burden’ – a charity which was created by journalists Fergal Keane and Billy Kelly. They had both spent time in war-torn African regions and have first-hand knowledge of the atrocities that hit Rwanda at the time of the genocide of 1994, and wanted to help the country rebuild itself.

LEARNING TO SMILE: Rwamagana’s school provides an education for 3,500 children

An idea was developed to provide the people of Rwanda with the means to live in dignity through a dairy project.

With the help of Bothar, an Irish international charity, Msaada has provided high yielding European cows which were sent over to Africa to help the survivors of the genocide become self-sufficient through the sale of surplus milk, and to increase their crop yields using manure in their fields. The only condition? To pass on the first female calf to another family in need.

They drink the milk and share it with their families; they sell the excess, which provides them with an income

My reaction must have been similar to the look on many faces I have seen since I first heard about the project: “What’s wrong with African cows?”

I have learnt a lot since then: Irish cows can yield up to 33 litres of milk a day, the Rwandan cows only two or three. Lives were being changed.

So on February 11, I find myself waking up at 3.45am to prepare to board a plane headed for Kigali, Rwanda. Nervous but excited, I could not be further from my comfort zone.

SCHOOL PLAY: Rwamagana students and staff perform traditional dances

I arrive that evening to tarmac roads and modern infrastructure. There is little evidence of a country in crisis. I have never seen a country so clean! Where is the poverty we hear and read about? It’s coming…

As we leave the capital and head out towards the countryside, Msaada’s reasons for supporting this country become apparent. We spend time in Rwamagana, where there is a school that educates 3,500 children.

Every child feels blessed to be able to attend school, and so appreciative of Msaada’s help in providing the funds to build classrooms, a library, a properly ventilated kitchen and clean working toilets while also providing laptops to extend their learning capacity.

The pupils are excited to see us, and they put on an amazing show, with music and dancing and all the local traditions.

Women who have seen all or most of their families killed have come to help take care of the children

Then we visit four survivors of the genocide, each of whom has been given a cow. They tell us how much of a struggle life was prior to Msaada’s intervention.

They drink the milk and share it with their families; they sell the excess, which provides them with an income; they can grow crops using the manure; they can use bio-gas from the animal waste to cook their food safely.

All these things ensure that life is now good and their life expectancy continues to grow.

Msaada has sent 195 cows over to widows, with 67 being passed on to other families.

It has donated 14 cows to the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village [ASYV], the brainchild of an incredible woman, Anne Heyman, who discovered in 2005 that Rwanda’s orphan crisis was the biggest problem facing the country.

Anne recognised that Israel had faced a similar issue after the Holocaust and they had built residential facilities called youth villages to ensure their education, safety and development. Anne was inspired to bring the model to Rwanda.

Women who have seen all or most of their families killed have come to help take care of the children. It gives them a purpose, and provides them with another family. They are called the Mamas. As the sun rises behind the rolling hills of the ASYV, they wake the village’s 525 youths for their day.

Each student family consists of 16 to 24 boys or girls ranging in age from 14 to 21. They eat together in the dining hall, the noise almost deafening with chatter, and at 7am, flanked by coffee trees and colourful birds, they begin their walk up to the high school.

HELPING HAND: Dative with Msaada founder Billy Kelly

On our last day we see our two travelling companions, Jacqui Ritchie and Bobby Rich, bravely running their first marathon, organised by Msaada. Every February, a marathon, half marathon and fun run take place, with three and a half thousand people joining in the latter.

Jacqui and Bobby were supported by the locals, with children, some barefoot, running for miles alongside them and, despite exhaustion and injuries, completed the course, raising a substantial amount of money for Msaada.

We leave in awe and immensely proud of their achievement. I saw many things and experienced many different feelings whilst in Rwanda. Strangely, none of sadness, only hope.

To hear that the country is no longer split into tribes is encouraging. I am told: “We are all Rwandans, we live side by side with each other.”

Other nations could learn so much from these wonderful people and this incredible country.

Next year’s marathon takes place on February 16, 2020. Applications for this are now open. For more details, email: or visit

To make a donation, email: or or go to

Dative’s story, four years after receiving her first heifer

Before the genocide, Dative Murekeyisomi was reasonably well off. She had a loving family and wanted for nothing. Then her husband and first-born were killed, and her husband’s relatives slaughtered.

As a result of abuse she suffered during the catastrophe, she became pregnant and gave birth to a boy. Dative now had four children to provide for. Life was extremely difficult.

AVEGA [the Association of Genocide Widows]was formed to help widows, orphans and other survivors of the atrocities.

After a period of time Dative was discovered by AVEGA, who brought her together with other survivors.

It helped to know she wasn’t alone. In 2015, she was selected by AVEGA to be the recipient of a cow provided by Msaada. There was light…

In 2016, ‘God’s gift’, as she named her heifer, gave birth to a female calf. She raised it, then passed it on to another poor family.

Her second calf yielded 22 litres of milk per day, so she and her children had enough to drink.

“My close relatives shared milk and we were all happy,” Dative says. Her health has improved and her weight has increased by 15kg to 70kg. She tells us she finally feels relaxed.

In 2017, another female calf was born and at last she felt like she had hope. She had everything she needed and could now start to think about development projects to provide for the future.

Msaada had given her a facility to gather rainwater but she decided to pay to have the municipal water to be plumbed into her yard. She no longer had to walk miles to collect drinking water.

Dative used the money she earned from selling milk to ask the bank for a loan. Since then she has had three loans for 300,000 Rwandan francs (approximately £300), and then 800,000 Rwf, both of which she has paid off.

Last month she paid off the balance on another 800,000 Rwf loan. She is using the money to renovate and rebuild her house.

She is able to manage her finances and independently build a better future for herself and her family.

Dative is just one of Msaada’s success stories.


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