How permaculture made a real difference in Rwanda

Maddy Harland
Monday, 1st January 1996

Permaculture designer, John Hunwick, grew up on an organic farm in the fifties and himself farmed near Kingaroy in Australia. Falling crop prices in the eighties prompted him to sell the farm and embark on an extraordinary African adventure, ultimately leading him to the devastated land of Rwanda. This is a story of one man's quest to do something to help people suffering from the savage effects of one of the world's most barbaric wars...

John started his journey by contacting a number of aid organisations but found that none used sustainable practises. "The Africans need practical teaching to improve their food production, not just money thrown at them by big organisations," he says. This viewpoint led him first to Katale Agricultural College in western Kenya where he got involved with Farmers Groups and with individual farmers. He started working in the community and found that orphanages had major problems providing enough food for the children. "In many cases the children were very hungry and in a poor state of mind." This made John determined to concentrate his efforts in helping hungry orphans. Unable to obtain a permanent work permit in Kenya, however, he moved to Uganda where the government made him welcome and gave permission to start his work.

Sustainable Agriculture and Beekeeping

John began by teaching women sustainable agriculture and beekeeping. He set up SASO (Sustainable Agriculture Support for Orphans) with Ugandan colleagues and set to work in orphanages in and around Kampala, and also north of Kampala in the Luwero area where there was a major battle during the war consequently leaving many orphans. "In April 1994, the Rwandan situation exploded into a killing field. I was very concerned about the mass exodus of refugees from Rwanda, so I travelled to the refugee camp at Kisoro in south west Organda where there were an unimaginable number of devastated refugees. In these early days there was little or no organisation."

John and his team saw young children without food, some no more than a month old, their parents either separ-ated or slaughtered by the forces within Rwanda. At Rwenbogo, in Uganda bordering on the north east of Rwanda, the problem was even greater.

From there he travelled back to Kampala where he bought 250kg of milk and 100kg of sugar and returned to the refugee camp to set up an emergency feeding Centre for young children. "The funding in these early stages came from a few individual donations from some of the people I knew and from my own personal funds."

The SASO team also encouraged the refugees to grow vegetables around their huts. They supplied seed and began to plant kitchen gardens around the makeshift shelters. "We made a number of trips there taking milk and sugar to feed the young babies - I was very alarmed at the number of extremely traumatised children who had seen the massacre of their entire family and sometimes the entire village."

John witnessed countless corpses, often barbarously mutilated, and had seen mass trauma in thousands of children and adults. Before Rwanda, John was a tall, wirey Australian with a constant joke on his lips. At the time of my conversations with him last summer, he had become very thin, having lived on refugee rations for months, and the horror still stared out from his eyes. But John is not someone to give up. His work does not only involve designing food systems, compost latrines, solar stills, solar and biogas cookers or improved beehives, it includes an astonishing dedication and innovative approach to helping orphaned children. "Every African child loves beads - as in necklaces or bangles. We arranged for several kilos of beads to be brought across from Nairobi, made them up into small packets, and arranged the Red Cross to distribute them to children in the refugee camps. However, the traumatised children wouldn't come out of the huts - they just sat there totally stunned and emotionless, staring into space." John wasn't deterred. Rwandan adults were encouraged to bring the children out and the process of making necklaces began. John smiled, "Many of these children had not spoken for weeks and all of a sudden they started asking questions. It was very simple and effective mass trauma therapy - it was a big success."

Healing with Permaculture

When the war died down in late July 1994, John and his SASO colleagues travelled into Rwanda to see what they could do for children. In many villages they were shocked to find very few or no civilians - in others there was no-one at all. At this time there was a great need was to help people return home from Zaire. They were very weak, often women struggling with children. John drove whom he could back to Kigali. "The minibus would be over-loaded with people - many had been severely hacked and maimed and had horrendous wounds festering with gangrene. I took them to the Kigali hospitals being run by some of the aid organisations. They were doing enormously good work - overseas volunteers and local people worked around the clock. They coped with an enormous amount of tragedies."

From there John returned to Uganda to pick up more supplies - there was very little food in Rwanda. When he returned he was sought out by a Rwandan women who offered him family land which had been seized in 1959 by a colonel in the ex-regime - one of the organisers of the mass killings in the Kibungo area. The house on the property had been destroyed. John organised some overseas volun-teers to assist with the clean up and the basic requirements of the operation were funded by small donations SASO had received, mainly from individual Ugandans in Kampala.

John and the volunteers cleared the site of mines and debris and began employing local people to help get the project off the ground. "We planted beans, peas, sunflowers, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, peanuts. By mid-September we started accepting children. Community leaders brought us children, others told us where there were children in desperate need and we picked them up.

"We were also given other houses in the community. Rather than have all the children contained in one building like an institution, we had several houses where the children were put with a 'mother' to try and replicate a family home. I felt it was important to attempt to recreate what they had been used to to help them overcome their trauma."

Stabilising the Earth

SASO dug swales to trap water and created contour banks to prevent soil erosion. On these they planted caleanga seeds to stabilise the earth and behind that planted paragrass to give support - this would also supply a good fodder base for cattle. A Swedish organisation, V.I., donated 600 trees and supplied seeds for agroforestry. These were planted by adults and children alike. "They were very excited to be partaking in their future."

And of design principles: "Naturally the vegetables and the smaller things were closer to the house - as were the chickens we brought in, for ease of access and their security. Design is really common sense. You do what is necessary to make things easier for yourself." John also used stacking principles (commonly practised by local people): growing beans under the bananas and under the maize - and the layers would increase as the trees grew.

The area SASO was operating in was very poor and had been given little assistance by previous governments. "In the early days, we had to walk down the hill some 400 metres at night to get water from a stream." Everywhere had to be de-mined by Australian and Canadian armed forces. But before Christmas, SASO were harvesting crops. "This was a massive boost to the children's spirits. They were very excited and willing partners in the harvest. It seemed to undo much of the pain and terror, as well as giving them the sense that they were participating, in every way, in their future."

Unfortunately, around Christmas 1994 the security situation started to deteriorate. The massacres and arrests began again and refugees started to congregate in numbers. By March 1995 John returned to Uganda in fear of his own safety. 

Francesco Molan |
Thu, 09/05/2013 - 14:15
Good afternoon, anyone of you knows any international project related to apiculture in South America? many thanks in advance for your help! Francesco
Francesco Molan |
Thu, 09/05/2013 - 14:15
Good morning, anyone of you knows any international project related to apiculture in South America? many thanks in advance for your help! Francesco
johnttv |
Sun, 04/02/2018 - 14:34