Appolinarie Nyiracumi stopped believing in promises of help long ago. She learned that from the men who promised to love her forever, but left her only with a son, two daughters and a positive test for HIV. Then there was the government, promising to provide her with a new house after they condemned and burned the grass hut she had been living in. Then they told her they would only give her land, and she would need to build the house herself. But she had no money and no steady job. She could never accumulate enough to build a house. Left homeless, with three children to care for, she found shelter with a kind family in her village who gave her one room of their two-room house.
Appolinarie’s growing cynicism sometimes came out as defiance. She refused to participate in the umuganda, the mandatory community work project. The local official warned her that she could be sent to prison for not taking part. Appolinarie replied, “Go ahead, send me there. Prison is nicer than where I’m living now.”
So when her neighbors told her that she should come to the meeting to hear about a new program to help poor people she told them, “I’m not going. They will never pick me.” Besides, she had work that day and needed the income to provide food for her children that evening.
When she came back from work, her friends told her she had been chosen to be a part of the program, since she was among the poorest people in her village. She still didn’t believe it, not until a few days later when a woman from Concern Worldwide came to explain the program and take her picture so she could sign her up for a savings account at the local co-op bank.
Appolinarie joined the ranks of Concern’s graduation program in Rwanda. Focused on rural villages in the provinces of Huye and Nyaruguru, in 2011 Concern began to implement the approach first developed by BRAC in Bangladesh. In each village, they serve they begin by organizing a meeting where the entire community comes together to identify its poorest members. This was the meeting that Appolinarie decided she could not afford to attend. Once they have selected the participants, Concern establishes accounts in a local savings cooperative for each one, signs them up for the government’s medical insurance program and then helps them develop a household budget. With the budget established, Concern begins providing monthly stipends to pay for living expenses, freeing the participants for the next 18 months from the daily struggle to earn enough to feed their children each evening. Appolinarie used the first funds she received from Concern to purchase necessities, pots to cook with, a hose to water the garden and jerry cans to carry water from the village tap to her house. She and Concern also signed a mutual performance contract, with Appolinarie promising to use the stipends, the training and the assets to build a livelihood that would support her family.
Concern then provides funds for the participants to purchase assets they will use to generate income, along with training in how to manage those assets. Appolinarie purchased goats and grain. She stored the grain and then sold it later when the price went up, earning a profit that she used to buy more goats. Over the next 24 months Appolinarie received regular training in how to manage a business, save money, care for livestock, maintain her health and prepare nutritious meals. She met regularly with other participants in the program for the training, and once a week a mentor came to review her progress and advise her on next steps.
In all, Concern spent about $600-700 supporting and training Appolinarie over two years of programming. With this jump start she began to flourish. She rented some land to grow grains and vegetables. She saved up enough to start building a house on the land she had received as compensation from the government. She now resides in a solid cement structure with a roof made of iron sheets. She has painted her metal front door and window casements bright green, with the fabric shades inside tied off to let the light stream in. Her house has four rooms, including a room in front where she can sit with her guests. In back she has cultivated a small vegetable garden and built a mud structure with one room for cooking and another for storing grain.
Appolinarie’s daughters have stayed in school and continue to do well. Her son, however, has acquired some of his mother’s obstinacy. He refused to go to school after completing the third grade, preferring to assist his mom in her business activities.
Concern has now served 2,000 households in Rwanda with this program, with most achieving results similar to Appolinarie’s.
A randomized control trial study showed that Concern’s program led to significant increases in food security, productive assets, children’s days in school, and home ownership. Concern worked closely with the government of Rwanda as it implemented this program, and now the government has adopted it as part of its Social Protection program for all those living in ultra-poverty in the country.
Concern kept their promises to Appolinarie. They provided what they said they would. And Appolinarie kept her promises to Concern; she has used their support to build a livelihood that provides for her and her children.
Now, when Appolinarie prays, she says she asks God for three things: that God would extend her days, that her children would be left in good hands, and that she could maintain the means and capacity to be helpful to others. And when it’s time for the community project, Appolinarie rushes to participate. Her current house provides much more comfort than prison could.