Cuso volunteer in Rwanda boosts disability fundraising

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 International. 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 some fun.

Daily life surprising, fun

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 said. Umeeda Switlo

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 work

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 challenges, UPHLS, an umbrella organization working with people with disabilities and HIV/AIDS, and NOUSPR, a national organization working with users and survivors of psychiatry.

Building profile, engagement

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, funds

Rwanda productTogether 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" - Mohandas Gandhi

For more information, contact Umeeda Umedaly Switlo,

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