Mama ZuZu, Isabelle Kamariza, X, & Me


It all started with Mama ZuZu.

Here is a woman whose smile never stops.

Mama ZuZu is thirty-eight years old, unemployed, and a mother of eight. She handles the affairs of her household, regularly attends church, and prepares meals for her children. However, starting two years ago, Mama ZuZu also began to incorporate regular trips to the local hospital in her schedule. At first, she gave from what was left over – the unfinished porridge from her own table went directly to feed the stomachs of hungry hospital patients. Mama ZuZu trusted in the Lord’s provision and gave from her limited means knowing that God would bless her even more abundantly in return. But over time, each visit and each newly adopted patient began to increasingly demonstrate the magnitude and urgency of the need.


[Brief tangent]

Two weeks ago, August 26, I attended a forum by the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace (IRDP) titled:

The state of peace in Rwanda as perceived by Rwandans:17 years after the genocide against the Tutsi

At this forum, IRDP examined the achievements and challenges Rwanda faces in rebuilding sustainable peace and presented the conclusions and recommendations from its research.

It focused on three important categories: good governance, social cohesion, and economic prosperity. 


“A society which does not focus its future on economic strategies which meet the needs of its citizens in such a way that there is justice in the distribution of wealth and entrepreneurship fails in its effort to build sustainable peace.” (IRDP)


Since 1994, the Rwandan government has taken significant strides to improve the standard of living for its citizens. Among these initiatives is “Mutuelles de Sante” — universal health insurance coverage implemented by the Ministry of Health to ensure access to quality healthcare for every Rwandan.

Depending on income and financial means, each Rwandan belongs in a category in which he or she contributes between RWF1000 ($2) and RWF7000 ($12) a year, which covers the minimum package of services provided.

IRDP claims that citizens believe “Mutuelles de Sante” is a good policy that contributes to the social welfare. However, the Ministry of Health’s decision to increase annual contributions in July 2011 has faced great backlash considering the low income of the majority of citizens.

From 1995 to 2010, the annual income per capita has increased 192% from 185,6 USD to 541 USD. While the figure is encouraging, it does not reveal the real standard of living of the people. As IRDP says, “The average does not help to measure the inequalities.”

In other words, even though the standard of living may have risen dramatically for some, this does not mean the gap has decreased between the poor and the rich.

As such, poverty continues to inhibit sustainable peace, and IRDP recommends the implementation of mechanisms that “monitor the effectiveness of poverty reduction programmes and their impact on the living conditions of vulnerable populations.”

Initiatives such as “Mutuelles de Sante” guide Rwanda toward peace. But even these initiatives continue to have flaws that contribute to the wide (and growing) disparities in wealth which make it dificult for Rwanda to achieve sustainable peace.


ALSO: There is one thing IRDP overlooked with regard to “Mutuelles de Sante”:

Hospitals do not provide food to patients.

Although public hospitals do have private restaurants where patients can purchase food at roughly RWF500 (~$1) per meal, many patients ultimately rely on the care and support of friends and relatives for daily sustenance. However, for the most vulnerable patients who come from outside of Kigali and can barely afford to even pay the RWF1000 per year for health insurance, meals becomes a near impossibility.

As a result, many patients receive medical treatment but then suffer from hunger, which inevitably worsens their condition. Add to this the already overwhelmed and overcrowded public hospitals where much needed space and beds are occupied by patients who cannot pay their medical bills, patients whose conditions are prolonged due to hunger or unavailable medication, and patients who have recovered but cannot even afford the cost of transportation to return home.

This became Mama Zuzu’s mission – to feed the hungry and to care for the vulnerable in Kigali’s public hospitals.

But she could not do it alone.



Bring in Isabelle Kamariza.

Here is a young woman whose heart and generosity have no limits.

Two years ago, Isabelle was attending a law school in Belgium and she was taking the train back home when she saw something.

She saw a man huddled in the corner of the train dressed in shabby clothing, his unwashed hair draped over bony knees hugged to his chest.

But that was not all she saw.

She turned around and looked at the other passengers on the train – women dressed in the latest styles from the most fashionable boutiques, businessmen on their blackberries and iphones, teenagers flirting and teetering on sky-high heels, students like herself with heavy backpacks filled with laptops and books.

She saw people who had been conditioned not to see – not to see the man in the corner, not to see poverty and hunger, not to see human misery even when it was sitting right in front of them.

She saw herself.


She saw her own discomfort and guilt and shame. And she felt herself turning away, just like all the others – but then she stopped, and wondered why.

That day launched Isabelle’s first organization – a program that started with a dozen home-made bagged meals and evolved into a widespread mission to feed the homeless and the hungry on Belgium’s streets and subways. Her compassion and generosity instigated a movement among Belgium’s youth to see and address the issues within their own communities.


Last year, Isabelle’s parents asked her to come home for a brief vacation. Although she was reluctant to leave her work in Belgium, Isabelle agreed to return to Rwanda.

She met Mama ZuZu (whose real name is Donatila Mukashalangabo) at church. As they were praying together, Isabelle prayed – as she always did – for the “sick, and the poor, and the hungry.”

But mid-prayer, Mama ZuZu interrupted and said: “Do not pray for the sick and the poor and the hungry. Meet them, know them, and pray with them.”

Mama ZuZu took Isabelle to CHUK. There, Isabelle saw patients who were stranded at the hospital because they could not afford to pay their bills. She met the sick and the poor and the hungry, and she prayed with them.

There were sick people outside, mostly children and women; some of them had spent two weeks outside without treatment and it was raining,” says Isabelle, “I asked myself, how can we people go back and sleep in our comfortable beds on a soft mattress and just chill out, wake up and spend Rwf1000 for a coke when there are all these sick people sleeping in the cold, right in our neighborhoods?”

Using her own resources and connections, Isabelle, then 25, began to raise money and ask for food donations.

I began begging people to help. I would go to mama and say ‘Please give me 5000 francs and I will do this… please give me milk and I will do this…’and I begun like that,” Isabelle said. Isabelle shared her concerns with the Rotaract Club Rwanda, which contributed Rwf160,000 and released several patients from CHUK hospital in March 2010.

Isabelle never left.

With just one more year remaining of law school in Belgium, Isabelle chose to remain in Rwanda and commit herself full-time to addressing hunger and poverty in Kigali’s public hospitals. Mama ZuZu’s heart coupled with Isabelle’s passion and leadership gave birth to “Solid’Africa” in Fall 2010 – a youth-driven non-profit organization dedicated to serving the most vulnerable patients in public health facilities through providing food, medication, basic sanitation, and the means to return home.

Over time, Mama ZuZu’s initial family of eight has steadily increased to a still-growing family of over three hundred.


People need to know that they do not have to give a million to make a difference in people’s lives…anything small can make a huge difference,” says Isabelle.




So how do I fit in?

For those of you who follow my blog, you will remember that I am supposed to be developing a program in Kigali that pairs students with part-time business internships.


I am not doing that.


It would take too long to go into detail – but suffice it to say that this has been one of the most difficult months of my life.

My original project did not happen for a number of reasons.

For one thing, my most important contact and project partner decided to leave the project, but did not inform me until two weeks after I had already arrived in Kigali. Then, I learned that the fortunes of the Rwanda Multi-Learning Centre (where I taught last summer) had changed, and now more and more students are able to attend universities through external funding – which is wonderful news, but also means that my project has significantly less import and urgency than before.

So here I was in Kigali with two weeks already wasted and unsure of what to do. I felt guilty for wasting time and grant money, I felt shame for my inadequacy and apparent failure, and I felt disappointment for not having a back-up plan and for trusting so naively that things would work out.

And then, in the midst of the stress and anxiety, I got very sick and spent two days in the hospital.

In almost every respect – physically, mentally, emotionally, and even financially – I felt I had reached my limits.

At the IRDP forum, IRDP specified that, in addition to poverty, challenges in education and employment (my original focus) remain “threats to peace.” However, without my original partner organization and project partner, I already had to start from scratch and I was no longer certain whether starting anew with another school would be the best approach.

But somehow, some way, things tend to work out. It turns out my roommate was one of Solid’Africa’s first members, and when he heard about my frustration and struggle to design a new project – he immediately pushed me to attend one of Solid’Africa’s weekly meetings.

At this point, I was extremely paranoid and disillusioned about working with others, and I was worried that I would not find people as equally invested or committed to whatever issue I chose to tackle.

Fortunately, Isabelle and the members of Solid’Africa convinced me otherwise.

At the meeting, I found a large and growing number of dedicated individuals who had all, in some way, committed to the cause. Some offered the services of their own businesses, others dedicated their skills in marketing and advertising, others used their connections to secure audiences with the President and important political figures at forums and conferences, and still others donated time and money to serving food to hospital patients. Even though Solid’Africa only officially launched in April 2011, they have a rapidly growing membership among Rwanda’s youth, and have also started quite the fashion trend with their popular t-shirts!

Their mission statement: Solid Africa is a mindset and a movement of people that believe that it is possible to channel individual efforts towards helping those in need; and that through a strong social structure, we can all help solve most social constraints in public hospitals.

I listened to Solid’Africa’s current projects and spoke with Isabelle and the other central leaders about their ideas and future projections for Solid’Africa. Currently, Solid’Africa has four main projects:


Gemura Food For All: Gemura” means “to bring food [to someone who needs it]” in kinyarwanda. This is Solid’Africa’s original and most developed project – to ensure food delivery to hospital patients. Solid’Africa serves breakfast to 300 patients at CHUK (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Kigali) every day, and lunch every Monday (“Solid’Monday”) and every last Sunday of the month (“Solid’Sunday”).

Kiza – Medicine For All:Kiza” means “to heal.” This project aims to provide patients with medication that is unavailable (often because it is too expensive) in public health facilities.

Sukura – Hygiene and Well-Being: Sukura” means “to clean something [hygiene].” This project focuses on ensuring that patients have basic sanitary supplies: plastic cups, plastic plates,tooth brush, tooth paste, toilet paper, female pads, etc.

Gombora – Hospital Release and Transportation:Gombora” means “hospital release and transportation.” Solid’Africa covers the cost for treated patients to return home.



Solid’Africa’s biggest and most pressing goal is to build a “Gemura Kitchen” – or, essentially, the FIRST SOUP KITCHEN IN RWANDA dedicated to serving the most vulnerable patients in hospitals.

Right now, all of the food is cooked in two volunteer kitchens of limited capacities which inhibit maximal food production. In order to reach their goal of providing two meals every day to 700-1000 vulnerable patients in Kigali’s public hospitals, Solid’Africa needs a kitchen with the capacity to cook enough food. So far, the land has already been secured and building materials donated; now, all that is left is paperwork and construction.


Doesn’t Solid’Africa sound perfect? Here was a dedicated group tackling an important and urgent issue. I could not have found a better partner organization to work with.

However, I had one major concern.




Currently, two Solid’Africa members provide all of the milk and there is one sponsor who supplies all of the maize. The structure of Solid’Africa and its planned kitchen rely entirely on donations – which may be fine for the long run, but on any given day, something could happen and the food for the patients could be jeopardized.

In addition, I posed this question to Solid’Africa: “Guaranteeing sustainability for Solid’Africa is one thing, but how do you ensure a sustainable reality for the patients that you are serving?”

I proposed to complement food aid with educational programs that tap into Solid’Africa’s volunteer base to help hospital patients resume their lives after treatment – for instance, a program that works with patients to gain technical skills, write their CVs, apply for jobs, learn English, etc. Vocational learning, especially, would align with IRDP’s recommendations to address unemployment, and specifically the “lack of qualified technicians on the labour market.” 

Another possibility would be to start an educational campaign in secondary schools and universities to engage and mobilize more youth in the issues within their communities. This latter project has made more headway, and I am overseeing the launch of a “Solid’Africa Honor Society” that will model our American “National Honor Society” which selects the best and the brightest high school students and requires 50 hours of community service work. The hope is that changing community service from a punishment to a privilege and duty will help to create a movement that shifts mentalities.

However, one of the members of Solid’Africa put it best: “Educational programs are wonderful and important, but when we cannot even address the hunger, our first priority must be to serve food. People need to eat before they can learn.”




With questions of sustainability on my mind, I spent the next two weeks familiarizing myself with Solid’Africa. I started by editing all of their documents and attending all of their general and committee meetings, then gradually moving up to become their newly appointed secretary and designing an internal structure for the organization. I was moved by the energy and commitment of the members, but also aware of the lack of structure and cohesion within the group. I went to CHUK and met some of the patients; when it was time to serve lunch, I was dismayed by the chaos and disorder, and worked afterward with one of Solid’Africa’s leaders to come up with a more efficient and structured procedure (think assembly line, instead of patients crowding in toward the food and shoving bowls toward us).

But still, I had not found an answer to sustainability.

At first, I suggested that they could partner with organizations that focused solely on food aid, or perhaps apply for external funding to give them an extra financial cushion. However, I admire the group’s insistence on Solid’Africa’s identity as a “mind-set” – and their push to change mentalities and tap the resources of the community to directly channel individual efforts toward social issues.

“We want to instill into Rwandans the desire to help the most vulnerable people in our communities without involving foreign assistance,” says Patrick, a Solid’Africa leader.

Solid’Africa’s goal is to spread their mind-set and start a movement in Kigali, because they recognize that changed mentalities within the community are much more powerful and long-standing than external funding and support. After two years, they hope that their efforts will lead to advocacy and the Rwandan government will begin to require public hospitals to serve food to patients.

As I continued to try to find my place in Solid’Africa and figure out a project that would ensure sustainability, I also began to tell more and more people about Solid’Africa.


Bring in X.

X is a fifty-four year old business man who recently signed a $142 million contract with the Rwandan Development Bank to build 1000 houses in Kigali.

He is one of those people who has the rare problem of having more money than he knows how to use.

X made his fortune long ago in construction and built up a business empire that spanned continents and led him to accumulate a net worth of over $200 million (which apparently includes two islands). He retired ten years ago, but apparently he and his wife started quarreling when they were cooped up in their vacation resort and she told him to go back to work.

So he did.

He tells me that business is like playing chess. “You win, or I win. I am happy if I win. You are happy if you win. But the result does not change anything for either of us.”

Clearly, X is not in business for the money. (Otherwise, I think $142 million certainly constitutes a significant “change” for whoever loses it).

X is in business because he enjoys the feeling of success and accomplishment – like winning a chess game.

When I told him about my “business” in Rwanda and my struggle to find a sustainable answer to Solid’Africa, he chuckled.

Darling,” he said, “I like you. You have a clean heart. You want to help. But you need to think about yourself – you need to think about your future. I can build you a kitchen – that is no problem. But what about you? You need to think about yourself before you think about others.”

I explained that I was not in Rwanda to make a profit, and that I have more than enough to sustain myself (especially once Fulbright funding arrives in December). My goal here is to make a difference – and a sustainable one.

However, X insisted: “If you want to make a difference, you need to start your own business. Don’t work with Solid’Africa. Start your own and donate 10% to Solid’Africa or the hospitals, and invest the rest to build your own future.”

It turns out X already had a business plan that fit perfectly with Solid’Africa and my questions of sustainability. He just hadn’t implemented it yet because he didn’t have a project manager to oversee it.


Bring in … ME!


So, dear Readers, my project has transformed from a program that unites students with business internships to…

*Drum roll*




Yes, I am building a chicken farm.

We have the land. We have the construction company. The hatching machine for 200,000 eggs is on its way from China, and we are importing the eggs from either Turkey or Israel.

Why a chicken farm?

Because chicken is high in demand in Rwanda but scarce and poor in quality. If you go to any restaurant in Kigali, steak costs significantly less than chicken (which is FANTASTIC, in my opinion, because I love steak – but also means that people here WANT chicken) and the chicken that is served is dry and stringy. Restaurants that choose not to use the local chicken often have to obtain their chicken from external suppliers.

Thus, from a business perspective, constructing a chicken farm in Rwanda is a very good investment. And I seem to have found the person who has the resources and experience to do it! Now, all that is left for me to do is learn, implement, and eventually manage.

Right now, the plan is for X to first make the arrangements to build a large-scale chicken farm in Mombasa, Kenya (where most of his business is based), and I will watch and observe. Then, we will return to Rwanda and I will manage the construction of a smaller chicken farm in Kigali.

Our hope is that the farm will be constructed by the end of September. It takes 40 days for eggs to hatch, so we should be in business by November. Solid’Africa’s Gemura Kitchen will probably not be completed until December or January, but by then, I should have the means to start supplying chicken in a sustainable manner and use the profit from the business to fuel other sustainable ventures that can also support the provision of food to the hospitals.

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