Jeanne d’Arc Mukamurigo sits on a straw mat in the shade of a low, flat-topped tree and demonstrates to the assembled group the skill of weaving a coaster. She is President of the Imirasire Basket-weavers’ Cooperative in the village of Mayange in the district of Bugesera.
The cooperative has 210 members in total, all women, and makes a whole range of products, from placemats to baskets; all intricately woven from colourfully dyed natural materials.
The revenue generated by the sale of these products goes back to the ladies of the cooperative and effectively back into the community.
Set up in 2007, the cooperative is just one of the initiatives which have been started by the Millennium Village Project (MVP) here in Mayange.
The international project was founded in 2000 by 186 Heads of State around the world in a bid to help reach the Millennium Development Goals, which seek to eradicate the worst effects of poverty.
The project targets a specific village and aims to improve education, health, agricultural productivity, infant nutrition and general standards of living in that village.
The first Millennium Village was in Sauri, Kenya, but since then the project has been expanded so that now there are 80 such villages in 10 different countries, Mayange joining the list in early 2006.
The members of these villages are said to be caught in a ‘poverty trap’ – that is, they have no ability to save money and improve their lives, because they live hand-to-mouth, on or below the subsistence line.
Visiting the local school, Mayange B Primary School, the improvements made by the scheme are clear. In the last 3 years, primary enrolment has risen from 15 percent to 76 percent, a remarkable increase largely due to the insistence on each pupil having lunch at school every day.
Headmaster Martin Rwabukwisi explained, “Back in 2001, when the school was first opened, there were just seven teachers and only 560 pupils. Now, we have 19 teachers, including three in Kindergarten, and 1065 children.”
The teacher to pupil ratio across the sector is 1:63, better than the national average of 1:67, illustrating the rapid turn-around achieved through the Project.
The Millennium Village Project puts a strong emphasis on agriculture, so much so that even the children in school have a lesson in farming practices once a week.
Emmanuel Dushimirimana and Christophe Kwizera demonstrated how a simple technique known as ‘grafting’ can dramatically increase yields in crops such as oranges and lemons.
The process involves two separate stems being fastened together and allowed to fuse – “in two years, these will have grown into trees and be bearing fruit,” Kwizera affirmed.
A local farmer, Celestin Ndahayo, showed us round his plot, and described the situation before the Project came to Mayange.
“This is a particularly dry region; we often had problems with crop failure and acute hunger. For two years in a row, my maize crop failed, due to shortage of rainfall.”
Since then, the Project has worked with him to improve his agricultural techniques and has given him tools, fertilizer and seeds to increase his productivity.
Ndahayo was encouraged to grow cassava, which requires very little water, needs no fertilizers and can stay in the ground for five years without becoming spoiled.
Moreover, it is possible to eat the root and the leaves, or alternatively it can be dried, turned into flour and used to make bread.
He was also given a new variety of cassava plant, which takes just 6 months to mature, as opposed to the traditional variety which took 2 years.
The Project has also taught farmers how to collect water in small pools for the dry season, and these rudimentary pools can be seen scattered all over the surrounding hillsides, proof of the proliferation of such simple advances. Another sector which has seen huge improvements is health provision.
Theophile Ndabeye, a nurse in Mayange Health Centre, explained, “The clinic was set up in 1998, but there were only 3 nurses and very little medication available. Most people tended to stay at home and favoured traditional herbal medicines.”
Since then, the number of nurses has risen to 19 and there are now three ‘health spots’ across the sector, in addition to the main centre. Each village also has two health workers, one male and one female, who have bicycles and mobile phones. Furthermore, the sector also now has an ambulance, which has a toll-free number and is on-call 24 hours a day.
“All these things help us reach people in need of medical care quickly,” Ndabeye said.
“Malarial deaths used to be commonplace. But nets were provided and the rate has gone right down.”
Cases of infant malnutrition have also fallen from 318 to just 32 in Mayange, illustrating not only an improvement in health care, but also education and general standards of living.
The Project also paid the US$2 a year health insurance for those who could not afford it.
“When the clinic started, we received about 300 patients a month. Now we see over 3000 in the same time,” Ndabeye emphasized.
On the surface, the project seems to have been an extraordinary success. However, there are many who disagree fundamentally with the design of the scheme and the ideology of its founder and director, Jeffrey Sachs.
One of the most eminent critics is William Easterly, Professor of Economics at New York University and author of ‘The White Man’s Burden’.
He accuses the Millennium Village Project of being just another example of ‘top-down’ development, another attempt to tackle over-ambitious targets which are destined for failure using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
“Flying in foreign experts to create a miniature village utopia has little to do with the complex roots of poverty,” he wrote in The Los Angeles Times in the same year Mayange joined the project. Other critics believe the scheme breeds dependency through its willingness to give free ‘hand-outs’.
And in spite of the resounding evidence of success all around Mayange, there were subtle tell-tale signs that support this theory.
Every now and then, while walking around the village, the banner ‘USAID’ would crop up in large print across a can of cooking oil or a sack of maize in the primary school kitchen, a clear indicator that Mayange is still far from self-sustainability.
As Déogratias Rubangisa, Office Manager for MVP in Rwanda, admitted, “We are still not ready.”
Though talking to the children at Mayange B Primary School, it was clear that they had benefited from the scheme. Derik Shaka, 7, was smiling broadly as he said, “I am very happy to be at school. My favourite classes are Maths and English.”
His classmate, Estelle Mokeshimana, 9, said she wanted to be a teacher when she grows up – “it’s the kind of work I love.”
The simple fact that these children hold and cherish such aspirations is in itself a huge triumph and reason for optimism. Indeed, the first three years of this project have brought about huge improvements across the board – in health provision, education and agriculture.
General standards of living have improved throughout the sector, and it is totally feasible that the 25 000 inhabitants of Mayange will be able to continue this development after MVP funding ceases as it is it due to in 2015.
But short-term gains are difficult to distinguish from the beginnings of long-term sustainable development. One hopes that time will prove the critics wrong and that this project will continue to lift people out of abject poverty and gradually reduce their reliance on foreign aid.
But I will only be able to keep that faith if by my next visit to Mayange those USAID sacks have disappeared into the dust. New Dawn Associates (NDA) is a touring company based in Kigali, which organizes tours to the Millenium Village in Mayange. They work with the villagers and 70 per cent of their profits go towards supporting projects in the village.