Cathy is a Rwandan lady of a deceptively slight frame, a penetrating look and a big heart. That frame is deceptive when you witness her energy and actions.
The penetrating look has enabled her to plan far into the future and the big heart has set her on a mission to rescue the vulnerable of Rwanda.
When she saw gorillas for the first time in 2003, Cathy was as captivated as the tourists she saw frequenting the route between Ruhengeri and the mountains. She was fascinated, but looked beyond and around and saw the people and was even more fascinated.
The people around the mountains of Northern Rwanda are more fascinating than the gorillas but the tourists, driven by the urge to get a glimpse of the world-famous gorillas, have no time to appreciate this.
In fact, Cathy realised that what was even more fascinating was that while there was nothing any one could do to improve the lot of the gorillas, except ensuring their preservation and the protection of their environment, it was possible to make a vast improvement on the lot of the people.
And with that realisation, she was hooked.
Cathy today runs a charitable organisation based in the community of Gashangiro, four kilometres from Ruhengeri town on the way to Kinigi, at the foot of Gahinga and Muhabura volcanoes, near the home of those gorillas.
The charity organisation is called PREFER (Poverty Reduction, Education and Family Empowerment in Rwanda). PREFER as a charitable organisation is still in its infancy and what is prominently visible so far is PREFER Preschool.
The school provides pre-education to children of single and teen parents, orphans, street children and any equally vulnerable child. It provides their tuition, supplies, materials, food during the day and clothing.
The preschool is also still in its infancy and unable to give the children fulltime accommodation and in the evening the children go home. In the case of children without homes, the organisations find families that are ready to adopt them. In turn, it facilitates the families with basic requirements and many are eager to volunteer.
So far, PREFER has graduated 60 children who were provided with school materials and new uniforms and sent off to first year of various primary schools in the area. In Rwanda, basic primary education (first 9 years) is free.
In all the primary schools the children have attended, they have demonstrated better performance as compared to other pupils.
Today the preschool counts a membership of 159 pupils. The projected goal of the organisation is to expand the preschool, introduce a primary school, secondary and, later, a vocational institute. Already, it is sponsoring pupils in primary school, 23 students in secondary and one in university.
For the moment, it has introduced the system of charging a portion of the children’s tuition to families who have the means. The aim is to have 50% attending free while 50% pay their tuition. This ties in with their overall programme that aims at empowering the community in Shonga and shedding the attitude of dependence.
In this line, poor families that have been identified by the local administration are provided with goats. The goats do not only provide improved nutrition with their milk but can also be sold off and earn an income once their number has increased.
The organisation has many other projects like sewing, baking and soap-making. This way, the women of the community otherwise dependent on small land holdings, or simply on begging, are starting to supply school materials and uniforms.
It also has a medical clinic that caters for the community’s immediate health needs but also helps in sending the sick to hospitals and buying medical insurance for the very poor. Government subsidises insurance and at 1000 Francs (less than $2) a year, many can afford.
When one considers the older and bigger SONRISE organisation of Bishop John Rucyahana in the nearby area of Buruba, and many others in other parts of the country, one can see what Rwandans are capable of. And, the world being inhabited by multitudes of generous hearts, it suffices only to reach them and show them the good that they are capable of spreading to their underprivileged fellow humans.
In fact, given the right environment, some of these good hearts are not contented with just donating to charity. Many are ready to join the worthy cause of a people who are committed to hauling themselves out of the barbarity of poverty and ignorance.
Which is how Cathy comes in. Cathy Emmerson is of Canadian origin and when she came to Rwanda for the first time it was to see gorillas as a curious tourist.
But, as I said, she looked beyond and here she is. Here to join the one-time divided Rwandans and play her non-too-small role in proving that humanity is not inherently self-destructive but symbiotically self-enriching.
And I say the above with a shame-filled face. To think that I pride myself in being a veteran native of the area, yet her presence there was brought to my attention by a friend in Canada. Rwandans, let’s explore our land.
The hard-working couple of Cathy Emmerson and Teste Uwayo, turi kumwe (we are together)!