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Rebuilding in Rwanda

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What began as a grad trip to a country recovering from war became a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a mother and daughter from Whistler.

Susan Conley, a manager at the Whistler Health Care Centre, jumped at the chance to go to Rwanda when she heard about it. A colleague was trying to find a nurse with some background in prenatal and perinatal health and happened to be at a meeting that was also attended by Conley.

“She said, ‘Do you know any nurses that would like to go?’” Conley said. “And I said me!”

A nurse since 1983, Conley has done primary health care in various places and worked in the special care nursery for nine years at the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster.

She had just finished a degree in leadership through Victoria’s Royal Roads University when she heard about the Rwanda trip.

“It was a gift to myself because I had just finished a master’s degree in June,” Conley said. “When my husband finished his MBA he took our son on a trip, so this was our turn.”

It didn’t take long before daughter Erin, excited about working with children in a third world country, decided to tag along.

“I basically said that she wasn’t going alone,” Erin said.

Neither had gone traveling extensively before, outside of trips to Mexico and Hawaii.

“Not a lap of luxury, this is very new,” Susan said.

From July 15 to 29 they were in Kigeme, Rwanda, a village that sits at over 6,000 feet on a hillside in Gikongoro province. They were there to take part in a project that sees nurses go back and forth to the central African country to help people in the village develop and improve their own health facilities.

“Every year they had gone back and this was part of their project,” Susan said of The Healthy Mums Project. “They were specifically focused on teaching the people there, not necessarily bringing things to them and leaving, but actually building their own capacity and their ability to develop more of their resources.”

This time out, The Healthy Mums Project was looking to send someone to train the Mother’s Union, a group of women that could help out other pregnant women in the community — it was like a visiting mothers program, according to Susan.

Prior to leaving, Susan and Erin helped raised $14,000 through the sale of cards for $15 a piece, the money going to buy goats for different families in Kigeme.

“(The cards) had pictures of the goats on them, and people would say, I want to buy a goat,” Erin said.

The goats were provided as part of an ongoing food security project. The families breed the goats and can sell them to make money. Having the animals also allows families to grow their own gardens.

“All women are taught how to grow a kitchen garden so that they can obviously eat the vegetables,” Susan said.

Susan and Erin would go with a vet to see how the goats were doing to make sure they were being fed properly and taken care of.

“It wasn’t like we were just giving them a goat and expecting them to have at her,” Erin said.

Susan and Erin’s first impression of Kigeme wasn’t much different from people’s first impressions of the Pemberton Festival.

“It was dusty,” Susan said. “It was smelly, there’s a lot of pollution there because they burn coal there to cook their food, so we were pretty sick with allergies and respiratory stuff.”

Things weren’t much better when Susan worked at the Kigeme hospital. She described a place where mouldy incubators would be used for storage and power failures were a common thing.

“The resources are very primitive there,” Susan said. “I think the biggest thing that stood out for me, having a background in public health, is the lack of laundry facilities. They wash everything by hand and they put the bed sheets on the lawn to dry, and they’re ripped and stained and they go back on the beds.”

When asked why people at the hospital wouldn’t hang dry anything, Erin said they didn’t have enough rope for clotheslines.

“They have a very antiquated autoclave,” Susan said. “They have new machines but there’s no one to service them or hook them up.”

She added that the hospital now has a generator when it didn’t have one a year ago. But that hasn’t stopped regular power failures.

While the facilities were basic, that never took away from the graciousness and hospitality of the people they encountered.

“You had a shower head and a tub and a bucket,” she said. “Coming there, it was, even when we left Kigali, you have children in ditches waving at you, you have people stopping. When the taxi would stop everyone would bring their babies for you to see them.”

For Erin, tasks involved teaching English four days of the week. Sessions would start off with six kids in a classroom and by the end she said around 100 kids would gather to take classes from her.

“By the end of the session we’d have probably 60 kids sitting down and then another 20 to 30 kids lined up around and then another 15 kids looking in through the windows and doors,” she said.

“We used puppets and a big gigantic globe. We didn’t feel like we had a ton to offer, but just their willingness to learn whatever English they could was phenomenal.”

She added that all these kids were on their summer holidays and that some of them would walk for two to three hours just to come to the classes.

The women of Kigeme, according to Susan, live without too many men around.

“There’s a lot of the fathers and husbands in jail,” she said. “There’s not many middle aged men that we noticed. It was kids and women and the elderly.”

Susan said that during the Rwandan genocide, which occurred in 1994, anyone suspected of being a genocide supporter would be put in jail. 800,000 were believed killed during a civil war between ethnic Hutu and Tutsi groups.

“They’re still doing that after 14 years,” she said.

Where suspected genocide supporters are concerned, a “people’s court” is held in each community and the community decides whether a person is innocent or guilty.

Prisoners, meanwhile, are dressed in either pink or orange uniforms and work the fields.

“The pink were the ones that were actually convicted, and the people in the orange were the people waiting for accounting,” Susan said.

Today, Susan said, the country is still recovering.

“How they’re trying to rebuild right now is building relationships with each other,” she said. “They don’t outwardly separate themselves between Hutu and Tutsis, they also have a pygmy tribe which we were able to visit as well.

“There was no discussion whatsoever about the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi.”

Though they have both returned to Whistler, Susan and Erin have not finished their duty to the mothers’ project in Rwanda. Susan will continue to serve as a go-between for the next year, providing educational material to the mothers’ union. She’ll be receiving materials from Douglas College and sending them on to the mothers’ union in Kigeme.

But she feels a lot more needs to be done to help out. The hospital in Kigeme still needs new equipment to provide adequate health care to local citizens. Whistlerites can help out by contacting her at sconley@shaw.ca.