publication date: Jun 6, 2012
author/source: Umeeda Umedaly Switlo
2011 was the year I decided to pursue a dream of working in
East Africa. I was selected to go to Rwanda, a country I had never visited, on a
three-month assignment with Cuso
. I was assigned as fundraising advisor to six disability
groups in Rwanda. The two-week orientation was a great experience; we learned
some Kinyarwanda, learned about Rwanda, bonded with other team members and had
Rwanda is unique-"Mille Collines" (a thousand hills), barely any flat
land, and high altitude, so it takes a bit to get used to. I lost weight and
became fitter. I lived two blocks away from a big outdoor market called "Chimironko"
and was able to get fresh vegetables and supplies close to my home. I travelled
by bus to work, and often by motorbike to different projects.
Rwanda is very organized compared to other East African
countries. One surprise was the cleanliness: people did not eat as they walked
and there weren't any street vendors. Within my first two weeks I fell into a
six-foot hole, and I learned to always look down.
I had a lot of fun on the buses on my way to work and
travelling throughout Rwanda. One by one people would say, "Nda Cigara" and I
wondered what they wanted. Were they really asking for cigarettes on the nice,
clean buses? I soon realized it was Kinyarwanda word "for let me off at the
next stop." The Rwandans laughed when I told them what I thought was being
As a biologist I could not neglect the number-one item on my
bucket list: to see gorillas in the wild. Tears rolled down my cheeks when a
young gorilla ran past me on the trail and pulled on my trousers!
The most impressive Rwandan community event is called Umuganda
. On the last Saturday of every
month, the whole country has half a day to focus on community and neighborhood.
Rich and poor side by side, they clean the streets, dig gutters and drainage
systems, and build houses for the poor.
Putting skills to
I started my assignment by trying to understand what the
organizations needed. I had never worked with deaf, blind or physically
handicapped people, or people with mental health challenges, so there was a
real learning curve.
I decided to work with those that had the biggest financial
, an umbrella
organization working with people with disabilities and HIV/AIDS, and NOUSPR
, a national organization working
with users and survivors of psychiatry.
I was so happy to hear that the organizations did not want
to be dependent on funds from outside the country. They are a proud and capable
people that would inspire anyone. We set about focusing on fundraising in
Rwanda. I also worked on events and supported their engagement on International
Mental Health Day and International Day of the Disabled.
We planned a tree planting day on the national Umuganda
day around the homes of
disabled war combatants. These were mostly men who had been in hospitals for
nearly 14 years and had finally moved into government housing built for the
disabled. I was surprised and honored to
be appointed chief of protocol for the International Day of the Disabled!
Product raises brand,
Together we created a branding and fundraising tool for
NOUSPR, a lapel pin of a kite made of traditional kitenge cloth and beads. The
kite symbolizes the hopes and dreams of those that suffered from mental
illness. It could be a great in-country
fundraiser, with people proudly wearing the pin in support of the organization.
What was best was that a cooperative for women with mental health challenges
made the pins, earned money and raised funds for NOUSPR.
Mentoring the disability organizations in social media
resulted in all of them being on Facebook
and Youtube and creating podcasts. My
work culminated in workshops on communications, event management, fundraising
in Rwanda and social enterprise. It was during the social enterprise workshop
that I felt we had the best impact. Rwandan entrepreneurs joined with the
disability groups to collaborate on social enterprise ideas. It was fabulous to
watch the two groups working together.
Rwanda is a country where people work hard to become less
dependent on the West. They have a unique culture and a pride in their peoples
and traditions. I cannot wait to go back one day!
When I got back to Canada I continued to support NOUSPR and
engaged mental health organizations in North America.
"A small body of determined spirits fired by
an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history"
For more information,
contact Umeeda Umedaly Switlo, email@example.com