Water as a conduit to an imbere heza (better future)

When I was in primary school, I was living in southwest Rwanda in a rural village. Our house, like those of our neighbors, was thatched with straw and it was the job of us children to collect water to use at home. Early each morning, before lessons started, and later after they were finished, we would walk down a long and steep hill, fill our containers in the stream, and then climb it back up with a container of 10-20 liters of water on each of our heads. We wouldn’t complain as we were proud of helping our parents who were working hard cultivating the land to feed us.

My recent visit to the rainwater tanks that IGCP is building in partnership with communities around the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda reminded me of these old days. Although the lush volcanic region receives more than its fair share of rain, the volcanic geology forces it to either run off or infiltrate rapidly, leaving people without dependable sources of water. Some of the only available sources are from small streams found within the park, forcing many to make the long daily trek into the park to collect water, even during the rainy seasons. In fact, water is one of the major reasons why people enter parks in the region.

Our guide to the place where these tanks have been built was Mrs. Athanasie Mukabizimungu. Athanasie is the chairperson of a local association called “Imbere Heza” meaning “Better Future”. The association carries out several activities, including building water tanks. The association is formed of 30 people- 26 women and four men. IGCP has hired experts from Uganda to train members of this association in the construction of household and communal rainwater collection systems and they picked the skills quickly.

IGCP Director Eugene Rutagarama, left, discusses the issues of water availability with Athanasie.

IGCP Director Eugène Rutagarama, left, discusses how Imbere Heza members are using the training they received with Athanasie Mukabizimungu on December 8, 2010. Photo by Wellard Makambo/IGCP.

Athanasie is a calm person, but she is a hands-on person and has a firm character and is a natural leader. She has been able to pull the team together, convincing the women to take up lessons in building, a profession that is traditionally left to men. When we visited the place where they have completed a communal water tank with the capacity of 90, 000 liters, Anastasie showed me another woman, Mrs. Dorothee Mukeshimana, who is responsible for managing the water tank.

Dorothee keeps the key used to open the tap. For collecting water from the tank, people pay 10 Frw ($0.02) for 20 liters. Dorothee collects this money and turns it over to the treasury of the association. When I met with her, I saw her as a confident woman, understanding the weight of her responsibilities. Many people were gathering around Dorothee, inquiring when she will open the tap.

The water use scheme stipulates that people who have been identified by the community members as the poorest people are exempted of paying for water they collect at this tank. In fact, Dorothee is among these poorest people. She has been selected because of this criterion and also because she is living near the tank. Part of the money she collects every day is also paid back to her as allowance for managing the tank.

The communal tanks that were built are complimented by household rainwater tanks distributed throughout the community.

Women of Im b work to complete a household water tank.

Members of Imbere Haza work to complete a household rainwater tank. Photo by Wellard Makambo/IGCP.

Since my childhood, I have a particular interest in water provision.  I have a strong feeling of how important water is as a commodity and a basic human right. Seeing how Athanasie and Dorothee are running this water project, I was astonished by the way this project has transformed their community and is gaining momentum beyond the finite components that we funded.

The value of this small project has gone beyond water to empowering and inspiring environmental stewards and community champions. I saw in Athanasie a grassroots leader, a woman who believes in a better future for her fellow community members and is capable of making things happen against all odds. And Dorothee is a wonderful example of someone who has been empowered and now plays a key role in her community.

Thinking back to the area where I was born, sadly, the water stream where I used to collect water has dried up because people have cultivated the watershed upstream. This happened because of population pressure and a lack of a leader like Athanasie to organize the community to protect their forests and streams.