Science - January 15, 2009

‘WE ARRIVE ON FOOT, NOT IN A JEEP’

German student Alexandra Höhne has been studying Management of Agro-ecological knowledge and Social Change in Wageningen for just six months now. But she already has several years’ experience of helping to set up and run a project in Africa, together with Rwandan student Ephrem Rukundos.

Thanks to a student-run development project, 85 percent of the households in Mpungwe village are now using a mosquito net to prevent malaria.
Rwanda has stolen Alexandra’s heart. This small, densely populated East African country is green and fertile, yet life expectancy there is only 50 years. The Rwanda Village Concept Project (VCP), set up in 2002, is unusual in that it is entirely run by volunteer students, who offer their time and knowledge to help raise the standard of living in the village of Mpungwe.

Mpungwe looks a bit like a Dutch polder town: all straight lines and planned. It only came into existence after the genocide of 1994, when the government built new villages to replace those that had been destroyed. These new villages lacked facilities such as clean drinking water, electricity and sanitation. And this caused many problems, including high infant mortality.

Students of the University of Rwanda are responsible for the day-to-day running of the project. Ephrem Rukundo is one of them, and he visits the village regularly to listen to the villagers’ problems and look for solutions with them. The project started small-scale and focused mainly on health. A water pump was installed in the village and toilets were built at the school. Of course, mistakes were made along the way. For example when a widows’ rabbit rearing cooperative was started by the students, the widows would not take care of the animals, who then died. ‘The women actually wanted cows, we later found out. It was simply a failure of communication, and we have learned a lot from it’, Ephrem explains. Since then, the project has worked ‘bottom-up’ as much as possible. By talking to people you can find out what they need. One villager told Ephrem, ‘Your ideas are all very well, like these toilets, but we can never afford them.’ So a new workgroup was set up to increase the villagers’ income. One project aims to increase the income generated by the coffee plantations, another has launched beekeeping and a third has set up a dancing troupe that can be hired for parties and functions.

There are some international students involved in the project too. They do the fund-raising and the PR, and can often offer additional knowledge on, for example, facilitating meetings or conducting feasibility studies. They are all volunteers, and pay for their own trip to Rwanda.

Alexandra has been involved in the project since 2003, and is the international coordinator. She enjoys the work and learns a lot from it. ‘Rwanda-VCP has sparked my interest in development work and I have gained many practical skills through it, for example writing proposals or giving presentations.’ .’

There is still much to be done, successful as the project has been. Or perhaps because of the successes: ‘When people see that the new toilets really work, they want a lot more. Sometimes more that the students can provide.’ There’s a shortage of money, training material and time. Students are busy and it’s never easy to find enough committed student volunteers.

‘The danger with a project in Africa is that as soon as mzungus (whites) appear on the scene, people expect dollars, and they stop taking initiatives themselves. We try to prevent this by making clear that we are students and are not rich. We show this by arriving in the village on foot and not in a jeep. And most important of all; we work alongside the villagers. Because no matter what good ideas we might have, it’s their village.’

Wageningen UR’s role in the project has so far been limited, and Alexandra still works mainly with a university in Frankfurt. But she does see scope, particularly across the border in Burundi, where the Village Concept Project still needs to be established – something that requires knowledge and, above all, hard work by students. Wageningen students, if it’s up to Alexandra. / Alice van Ginkel

If you would like to know more about the Village Concept Project, contact Alexandra Höhne: email('asb.hoehne','gmail.com'); .

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