Finding hope against all odds
By Jeff Hartman
There I was, crammed into a little van with 11 other people driving five hours through the “1000 Hills” of Rwanda. With legs cramping, I began to question whether this trip was going to be worthwhile. Would Cyimbili be a typical village with thatched roof houses, barking dogs, and chickens running around? Or were the stories I heard about its transformation true?
The founder of ALARM, Reverend Dr. Celestin Musekura, did his best to distract us during the long drive with stories of what life was like growing up in the Western Province. Along with his thoughts about present day life, he also shared his perspective on Rwanda’s history and the 1994 genocide in which 1 million people died in 100 days.
While much pain persists, he confirmed the stories of transformations that are offering hope and new life to the region. Hmm, I thought. I had to see it to believe it.
As we approached the village, our surroundings felt like a dream, and my initial thoughts of “typical” village life were quickly dismissed. Instead of thatched roofs, roaming dogs and chickens I saw a community that could have been a village in Cinque Terre’, Italy! I saw a little romantic hamlet nestled in a slice of mountain that lead down to the shores of a deep volcanic lake. The valley was lined with coffee trees and I was taken aback by the beauty, peace, and tranquility of the place. With the sun setting over the water, we were greeted with smiling faces and hugs. I knew right away this place was different.
The original plantation
The guesthouse we stayed in was literally feet from the lake and originally belonged one of the founders of the village, missionary Elvin Kile. Kile belonged to the Association of Baptist Churches of Rwanda (ABCR). He had a vision of a planned community beginning in the early 60’s. He helped establish a primary and secondary school, a Bible college, a health clinic, and a coffee plantation before dying of an apparent heart attack in 1983.
The morning after we arrived in Cyimbili (pronounced “Chee-im-biri”), Celestin gathered us around the rock wall Pastor Kile had been working on when he died. Holding a picture of Kile and his wife, Celestin fondly recalled how Kile introduced him to Jesus Christ, which, he said, was the greatest thing that ever happened to him.
He also explained how Kile once wrote to his church in the US asking for money. Kile was looking for someone to support a Rwandese secondary school student who had been kicked out of his house for converting to Christianity. A 60-year-old widow from Ohio responded. For years she collected trash along the interstate to recycle and sent $7 per month for this Rwandan boy. That boy was Celestin Musekura, who would one day found ALARM, an organization that would touch thousands upon thousands of lives.
As I listened to the stories about the early years of Cyimbili, I started to believe that I might be standing on sacred ground. I realized Cyimbili was a planned village, a plan that was given to Missionary Kile by God, and this village has been changing lives ever since.
For the next few days as we toured the plantation, wound our way through coffee trees and gathered on the front porch at night, Celestin shared the village’s history with our team. It seemed important that everyone fully appreciate the village for what it had experienced and what it has become. Cyimbili’s journey was tough, the transformation miraculous. I was captivated by Celestin’s stories and wanted to know everything, so I hurried to walk by his side, step by step, as much as possible. We walked miles up and down small hills, through the rows of coffee trees, and up even more hills, taking frequent breaks to admire the scenery and reminisce.
One particular day we hiked up to the highest point on the plantation. It was a grueling 40-minute climb straight up the hill, but we were rewarded with an eagle’s-eye view of the entire village, Lake Kivu, and the Democratic Republic of Congo on the other side. With the sun beating down, Celestin began to share with us the more painful side of Cyimbili’s history. He explained how, in 1991, fighting throughout the country caused people to abandon most of the area.
By 1994, production at the coffee plantation stopped entirely and the village was left to ruin. Hope had vanished, Celestin explained. There was no clean water, electricity, sanitation or other basic needs. Because of sand and erosion, many individuals had a difficult time growing their own food. It was almost unlivable. Without a source of income in the community, many widows and orphans began to emerge. The church continued, but was broken with traumatized leadership and congregants.
I couldn’t believe this was the same beautiful land I stood admiring as he described its ruin.
Celestin described how this concept of church brokenness, and the fact that 70% of Rwandan pastors were killed or forced into exile during the genocide, inspired him to do something for his people. The need for pastoral leadership and healing led Celestin to found ALARM in 1994.
At this point, my emotions had been on a roller-coaster ride. They went from the high of driving into the picturesque village at sunset, to seeing firsthand the stories of lives being changed at the plantation, followed by the low of learning about the destruction of a God-inspired vision as a result of an evil genocide. How could this be and why? As I walked down the mountain, I paused a moment and noticed what was before me. I saw 40,000 coffee trees, almost 170 workers, and a thriving village that not too long ago was hopeless. Was this all real? Was I really seeing a transformed community right in front of my eyes? If so, how did it happen?
In 2008 Celestin felt a tug to come back to Cyimbili and revive the village in some way. ALARM formed a partnership with ABCR and Hope for a Thousand Hills and began with the physical rehabilitation of the once productive coffee plantation.
- The first rehabilitation phase in 2008
- Land terracing, pruning and planting trees, staff hiring/training, construction of physical plantation, and other community infrastructures like hydroelectric turbines, sewage, and waste stations.
- Gathering of local pastors of all denominations from Cyimbili and neighboring communities for the purpose of encouraging each other, conducting pastoral leadership and reconciliation trainings, and exchanging ideas.
- Phase one was complete in 2012.
- Second phase (current)- production
- 148 (+/- 20) workers- (seasonal and full-time)
- 93 women (55-62%)-Many widows and primary breadwinners in their families.
- Each picker has goal of picking approx 77lbs of ripe cherries per day
- 40,000 coffee trees, each tree producing about 4.5 pounds of dry premium coffee beans annually.
- 928 pounds of ripe cherries per day, 27,000 pounds per month
- 97 pounds of dried coffee produced each day, 2,917 pounds/mo
- ALARM is currently working with a group in the US to ship, roast and market the beans internationally.
With the physical transformation has come a new life and a greater sense of community. Every day I sensed a palpable buzz as I walked through the fields. I saw men and women of all ages singing and talking as they picked berries, filled buckets, and hauled bags of berries up the hill to the cleaning station. Others were weeding and clearing the brush from beneath the trees on the steep slopes of the plantation hills. At times I could hear workers at the cleaning station singing traditional folk songs as they worked the beans.
It was a beautiful orchestra: people working together in an effort to produce some of the best tasting coffee that I have ever had. What a far cry from just five years ago when it was an over-grown plantation left for ruin, and 19 years ago when this very community was in the midst of a genocide.
At the plantation, I watched as ALARM worked to fulfill their mission of empowering the local church and communities. They do this in a holistic way, bringing together three pillars in the name of Jesus Christ: developing servant leaders, reconciling relationships, and transforming communities. Each pillar relies on the other in a symbiotic web of development that brings about sustainable change and hope in the lives of individuals and the community.
On a cold rainy day, over a cup of coffee, I was able to talk with several workers from the plantation and learn about this on a more personal level. Each worker had a unique story that embodied one or more of the pillars ALARM stands for.
Developing Servant Leaders
One of the workers was a tall, skinny, stoic man named Jean Domascene S who had a hard time smiling without laughing. Because he was the head supervisor at the plantation, everyone called him “Supervisor” as a nickname. With his earnings from the plantation, he purchased a house for $900 and a small plot of land to cultivate cassava.
Supervisor embodied servant leadership in a quiet, confident way both at the plantation and in the community. He explained during our time together that he and his wife, unable to have kids of their own, have been sponsoring an orphan boy’s education for eight years. In addition to this, he routinely travels to the eldest “moms” in his village who can’t work and provides food for them.
I was able to benefit from his servant leadership myself a few days later when he personally escorted a group of us to his home (over an hour away!) and then walked us back to the plantation after the visit. In other words, Supervisor walked almost 4 hours round-trip to ensure our safety and to offer support during the long journey. He did it without hesitating or complaining.
The second worker was a widowed grandma named Kristin, who cares for nine nephews and grandchildren. Although frail in stature, she was able to do the physical duties required of her at the plantation. She was the primary earner for her family on a little over $1.50 USD per day, much higher than any other job in the area. She has been widowed for 15 years, and with her earnings, she told us, she pays school fees for several of the kids, maintains the home and food supply, and retains health insurance for the family at the clinic in Cyimbili.
Kristin told me that before attending morning devotions, she used to steal firewood and coffee. She said, smiling, that the devotions have helped to change her heart and hear God’s words about how to behave. She told me she is more forgiving now and described her fellow workers as family. This would never have been the case 5 years ago.
The third was a 26 year-old single female named Judith M, who lives with her parents and 9 brothers and sisters. While very quiet, she appeared smart and strong. She, her two brothers and her dad all work on the plantation. She told me her life has been transformed in many ways since beginning work there. With her earnings, she has purchased two pigs, has opened a savings account, and helps maintain her household with the rest. She feels much more secure and believes she has a good future.
The three workers interviewed and others we visited listed the main benefits of working at the plantation as being paid an above average rate, participating in daily devotions, and being together daily. The workers agree that by working and attending devotions together every day, they “create unity with no segregation.” As one worker told me, “All people are accepted here.”
While things are vastly improving, village life is difficult, the three explained, and there are still struggles. Without the coffee plantation and their friends at work, life would be even more difficult than it already is. But, they believe their lives are being transformed by the work of ALARM and they firmly believe God provides for their needs. Hope indeed exists as a result.
After they left, I refilled my cup of coffee and sat on the bench outside, staring at the mist rising over the lake. I pondered what I had just heard and shook my head in amazement.
The Cyimbili Transformation
Beyond just the physical transformation, lives of the people living and working in Cyimbili are being transformed. I heard stories about how people who saw the ultimate depths of humanity on this very land two decades ago are today saving money to purchase homes or animals. Many have a better sense of control of their lives. Women and widows specifically are being empowered and research all over the world is showing when women are empowered, families and entire communities can be transformed.
While other government-planned villages are provided with modern conveniences, ALARM is providing hope and prosperity in a holistic way. This is what separates Cyimbili from a lot of communities in the area. The entire coast of Lake Kivu is lined with mountains and villages, but Cyimbili is a unique place where physical, emotional and spiritual transformation is occurring and hope is found against all odds.
- Go taste the coffee yourself! Click here to see how ALARM can help you plan a short or long-term mission trip.
- Can’t travel to Rwanda? Stay home and support ALARM. The needs are great and the opportunities diverse. Click here to see what opportunities exist:
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- Bring ALARM to you. Learn about the history and the future of ALARM straight from the leaders of ALARM. Click here to invite Dr. Celestin Musekura, Dr. Meredith Wheeler, or another ALARM representative to speak at your gathering.
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