Farming may be cool, but who will farm in Rwanda?

This piece was reworked and posted on the IDS PhD students’ blog – The Side Room and The Povertist.
Check out the links below!




village study

How does the ownership (and rearing) of livestock interact, influence and impact the crop farming production practices of smallholder farmers in Rwanda (and vice versa)?”

For the past two weeks and a half, I worked in a village nearby the town. The study site is about half-an-hour away by walk from the town’s market. Most of the villagers are farmers, but there are also a significant proportion of people who work in the city as professionals, trade workers, and labourers.

The land is premium – the price of purchase and access to land is high as the village is in the urban planning zone. So farmers here have a tough time expanding their cultivation areas and even have trouble finding affordable rental arrangements. Given the land constraint, livestock keeping is also under pressure. Farmers have difficulty finding enough feed for their animals (even in grass-abundant rainy seasons). People keep small livestock such as chicken, rabbit, goats and pigs and more affluent and able farmers rear dairy cows.

Being closer to town has both pros and cons for farmers. On the positive side, people can buy and sell their livestock more efficiently at the market (goats and chicken trade actively at the market, but cows and pigs are dealt from farmgate through intermediaries). The access to veterinary products and services are also relatively cheap (as on-call veterinarians have a short distance to travel and thus, lower transportation charges). On the other hand, theft is a serious issue for small livestock keepers. Many villagers have lost their animals and no longer keep any because of insecurity. Limited access to arable land is severe enough (and strategic) reason for some farmers in this village to keep their animal further away in another sector where farmland is more affordable and accessible. (They hire cowherd and farm labourer in this case)

Despite these challenges and higher cost of keeping animals in this village, farmers rear them mainly for two reasons: 1) alternative source of income and (financial) saving and 2) access to manure.

I’ve learned a lot from this village study, but the central question (my hypothesis question) remains open-ended: How do crop and livestock production integrations lead to production intensification and commercialisation for smallholder farmers in Rwanda?

team fieldwork briefing - day 1

team fieldwork briefing – day 1

165 households to map and visit - day 2

165 households to map and visit – day 2

day 14...almost done!

day 14…almost done!




Pop culture diplomacy

What’s in a name?”

There are many names that I get called by pedestrians in Rwanda. Most often people call me:

Muzungu: A foreigner (a colonial term for White person)
Umuchinois: A Chinese
Umujapan: A Japanese

More ridiculous ones include:
Jacky (as Jacky Chan)
Jet (as Jet Li)

Sometimes, I try to correct them by explaining that I am umucorea (a Korean). Usually, they don’t see the difference and just call me back umuchinois. Can’t blame them I guess – for them, we all look alike.

There’s been a significant change however on this front. Rwandans now recognise Korea as a unique and different country from our more well-known neighbours. This recognition is in part thanks to the Korean pop media. The import of Korean TV series (or drama) in Rwanda has risen in the past few years and Rwandans have fallen in love with it. “Jumong”, “Iris”, and “East of Eden” are some of the big household dramas that many Rwandans have watched, laughed, cried and adore. Whenever people find out that I am Korean, they share their excitement, joy and respect for Korean culture (or more specifically their favourite characters).

What’s interesting is regardless of differences in culture, language and lifestyle, both Koreans and Rwandans can relate to the universal human experiences of personal and family relationships and tragedies, struggles for a decent living, and of course, all-time-best-seller, love trials.

I am not sure if there is any hidden agenda in this Pop culture diplomacy by the Korean government, but I get to add another name on my list of nicknames in Rwanda: “Hey you! Jumong!”

East of Eden - a popular Korean series in Rwanda

East of Eden – a popular Korean series in Rwanda

made by nature

Rainy season in Rwanda”

When the rain falls in Rwanda, all outdoor activities come to a halt. Even the road – usually crowded and always busy with many bicycle boys, taxi-motos, and street vendors of all sorts – gets a break. Once I was caught unexpectedly in the middle of the torrential rain, and I had to run into a nearby shop to find shelter quickly. There, I found many others like me. We stood close together, and we all looked outside quietly. And there is something profoundly ‘natural’ about rain (especially the torrential ones) that makes you stop, watch, listen and just be absorbed by the water falling from the sky. I get a similar feeling when I find myself sometimes staring at an open fire or traditional cookstoves (or a fireplace for those of us living in a cold winter climate like Canada). The way these natural elements draw our attention is an indication, I believe, that even in a world where we are always distracted and fueled by all-things-made by men (by men I mean anthropocentric and not gender), that we are natural elements ourselves. Over 70 percent of our body consists of water, for example.

Today, most of us live in cities. While we enjoy the convenience of urban living, unfortunately, however, our natural senses are degrading and desensitised. Constant noises, 24/7 businesses, and streams of instant messages and information – leave us with little room for quiet space in our mind and heart to feel the connection with the environment (and the people) where we live in (and share with). Of course, I am not trying to romanticise the idea of “back-to-the-nature” or good-old rural life. I just wish we had a better balance between urban and rural development. We will be better off, in the long run, if we can integrate both technological efficiency (and convenience) and natural principles so that our advancement and (human) development are not undermining the greater ecosystem where we live and take part. However, it will be challenging to realise and feel this need (for more balanced social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development) if we are narrowly pursuing human (economic) development alone.

Pictures –
In line with the balance (and contrast) theme of this blog, last night we had a blackout, and I decided to take advantage of the difference between dark streets and moonshine. The contrast was spectacular. (Excuse the photography terms for those who are not familiar!) I delayed the shutter speed, increased the lens exposure to maximum and raised the ISO sensitivity to over 1000 to 3000 to get these images. Amazingly, even though the night-scape was dark, the moonlight was strong enough to brighten all the building structures, trees, and stars in their full colours.

Nature is awesome!

mlight_4 mlight_3 mlight_1 inyenyeri_1


Accepting the “not yet”

27 January 2015 –  Week 2

Learning a new language is an exciting intellectual and emotional process.

Not being able to understand what others are saying and not able to express your thoughts and needs in the local tongue can make one feel vulnerable and incompetent. This frustration can quickly turn into dependency on others (the locals who speak English or French). It’s more comforting and less stressful to hang out with local friends who speak English or French, but soon I realised that I need to face the challenge head-strong and accept the fact that “right now” I am not proficient in the local language but in due time, I will.

Uncomfortable as it may, I am more often than not in the position of listening and observing the context, surroundings, and people’s body language and mood. Surprisingly, by being attentive to the situation, I get pretty close to guessing the content of the conversation.

With the help of my local language teacher, Kalisa Jean-Paul, I am learning to read, write and speak in Kinyarwanda. Kinyarwanda is unique in a sense that it is used exclusively by people of Rwanda and Burundi (they call it Kirundi but it is almost the same as Kinyarwanda). Many words are influenced and borrowed from French and to some extent Swahili. For example, “ifurcheti” means fork (as “fourchette” in French); “igare” is bus terminal (as “gare” in French), etc. But some “pure” Kinyarwandan words and expressions offer a real taste of traditional wit and humour. Here are some examples.

Imbangukiragutebuka (ambulance):
This Scrabble-winning word reads in two parts – imbangukira (the one who wakes up) and gutebuka (quickly).

Kibonumwe (shooting star):
The literal meaning is “the one who saw”. When a group of friends walks at night, and one of them sees a shooting star and shouts ‘a shooting star!’ Others may follow suit, but the tail of a shooting star vanishes as quickly as the witness can scream it out loud. So the Rwandans call it, the one who saw.

Urare aharyana (May the best sleep where the bed bugs bite) and the reply;
Ahataryana harare umwanzi (The place where the bed bugs are not attacking is where enemy sleeps):
It is not a curse, but a good night greeting. The underlying logic (or wisdom?) is to wish for a good night sleep and an early rising wake-up (living and not dead) for the next day. Personally, I am not sure about this greeting, as I have previously suffered from bed bugs in Rwanda. I prefer to sleep like a (dead) log than being awake on a bed full of biting nightmares!


Rural development in Rwanda can be a rough ride but...

Rural development in Rwanda can be a rough ride but…

can it excel and accelerate like this?

can it excel and accelerate like this?

Home is where

22 January 2015 – It’s been a week since I arrived in Rwanda. Adjusting to local time, climate and living (change in language, currency, and the standards of living essentials like food, fire/electricity, water, and internet!) are not always easy, but I find the adjustment process much quicker and smoother this time. On my flight from Montreal to Kigali, I read some tips on how to beat the effects of jet-lag (Skylife January 2015).

1. Not eating before a flight and continuing afterwards can ease a certain area in the brain that organises sleeping, eating and hormone activities (A lighter meal, vegetarian option, for example, can also help).
2. Take Vitamin B before the flight.
3. Exercise for five minutes and meditating for 15 minutes can also help reduce the symptoms of jet-lag.

Once arrived at the destination, another technique that I find useful is to stand facing the sun in the morning (with the eyes closed of course). Direct sunlight helps to switch the body clock. Also, I exercise lightly but frequently to keep the body active and awake throughout the day. Most importantly, having a good night sleep takes care of the rest.
Thanks to the quick recovery, I was able to start private Kinyarwanda lessons at my good local friend Eric’s primary school (he is the headmaster at The Friends of the Children International School) in Rwamagana. I am reading, writing, listening and speaking like a ten-year-old and it brings me back memories of learning a new language when I first arrived in Canada. A circle of life? It’s the story of my life!

Some interesting differences between Montréal and Kigali – they are a world apart: geographically they differ by 47.4-degree latitude (Mtl 45.5 N and Kgl 1.9 S), and in Celcius, it feels 47-degree different (on the day of departure Mtl was -19 C and Kgl 28 C). They are both home to me now.

Il fait beau!

Il fait beau!

Elle fait chaud!

Elle fait chaud!

Artist: unknown Medium: cement floor, chalk.

Title: no title
Artist: unknown
Medium: cement floor, chalk.


do’s-and-don’ts for fieldwork – Pt. 1

Planning (pre-departure)
Do – We all need to do it. In fact, it is mandatory for any research work that goes through the ethical review process. A good part of the research design is about carefully walking through the most and least likely events and possibilities that may happen while in the field. However, regardless of how well you plan, outcomes are not guaranteed and fool-proof. You may be in good luck, and things fall in with the plan, or  things can fall apart in the least expected ways. (a crucial local research partner who was heading the district veterinary services went to Egypt for graduate studies, just two weeks before I started my fieldwork in 2011. I only found out a week before my arrival, c’est la vie eh?)
Don’t – The research outline serves best as a fieldwork map, but a roughly sketched one like on the back of a napkin kind. The essential landmarks should feature there (e.g. research questions and hypothesis) but don’t fret with the details for now. Having a foundation is necessary (you can make a standardised survey or interview questions), but it shouldn’t be the blueprint just yet. Terms and definitions in English or French will have to be translated into local language and approved by local people. For example, when I ask local farmers “how fertile is your land”, what are the various ways in which we perceive and understand by “(in)fertile soil”? It can be judged by colour, texture, smell, feeling (intuition), past yield history, hope, etc. Of course, it can be more (scientifically) precise, using pH and other chemical and mechanical analyses using soil sampling, but even with just subjective estimation, many characteristics vary and are subject to (individual) sensitivity.

Departure status: Delayed

Departure status: Delayed

Quick update – I am still in Montreal and waiting for the research permit result from the Ministry of Education of Rwanda. My local research partner organisation, the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research – Rwanda (IPAR-Rwanda), recently submitted our research fieldwork application to the ministry (and it may take up to three months) so now I need to exercise the virtue of patience. I should probably start practising Kinyarwanda (the local language) while waiting, but it’s not the same doing it on my own versus being there in person and studying it in full immersion. Maybe I can find a Rwandan community in Montreal?